What’s in a Name?

Years ago I was reading a book by Louis L’Amour, a favorite author of mine. I don’t remember which book it was (I haven’t yet read them all, but I’ve read many of them), but I do recall being confused throughout. Why? I’m so glad you asked. Because three of the main characters had similar names, names that all started with the letter T. Something like, Taggart, Taylor, and Trevayne. I was constantly turning pages to reorient myself as to who was whom. And also as to whom was who.

Naming your fictional characters (or, in nonfiction, composite or substitute names) is one of many enjoyable tasks in the creative process. For some writers of fiction, it’s their favorite part of the whole process. But there are, unfortunately, a few pitfalls when it comes to naming your characters. Here are several:

  1. Giving characters the same names

If you’re George R. R. Martin writing the series A Song of Ice and Fire, I suppose you can get away with giving three important characters the name Jon and two prominent characters the name Rob. But are you George R. R. Martin? Of course, in historical fiction, this can be an almost unavoidable problem. In my two coauthored historical novels, Northkill and The Return, two of the five main characters were a father and son, both named Jacob, so we distinguished between them by using the Old Country spelling for the immigrant (and father) Jakob while spelling the son’s name Jacob. Not necessarily brilliant, but it helped.

  1. Giving characters similar names

In some cases, there are good reasons to want two or more characters to have similar names. Siblings, for instance, such as Margaret and Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. At least their other sister was named Elinor. Margaret, Marianne, and Marabelle would’ve been too confusing.

  1. Giving characters unpronounceable names

I see this most often in aspiring fantasy writers’ efforts. (I don’t represent fantasy—Steve does—but still occasionally review or critique it.) Sure, it’s kind of cool to name your main character Zzysx, but I’m not sure how to pronounce it. Also, this is a problem in some historical fiction—especially if it takes place in Wales—like How Green Was My Valley, which provided a pronunciation key for names like Ianto and Iestyn and Mr. Gruffydd (pronounced “Griffith”). Even with the keys, the names can be a “bump” on the reader’s road.

  1. Giving a character multiple names

You know, sometimes a character named Naomi is called Dolly by her mother and Bug by her beloved grandfather. This sort of thing can add a note of authenticity and help to shape the  characters; but it can be a challenge for the reader, especially if Naomi, Mom, and Gramps are in the same scene.

  1. Giving a character an anachronistic name

If your novel’s setting is, say, Elizabethan England, and you give your English character the name Jolene, it might be a red flag to an informed reader since that name came into use much later. Similarly, if you’re writing a contemporary novel and name your character after a member of the U.S.A.’s 1787 Continental Congress, you might want to choose George or James instead of Governeur Morris or even Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer (whose family, the Jenifer family, had a tradition of naming all male children Daniel, so they appended phrases, such as “of St. Thomas” to distinguish them from one another). Not to mention (but I will) that Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer has another strike against it, in my view: His surname, when used alone (instead of his full first name) could be confused with a female’s first name.

I’ll stop there, and ask (1) what are your character-naming secrets, and/or (2) what character names have tripped you up in your reading or writing?

31 Responses to What’s in a Name?

  1. Avatar
    Molly Jo Realy July 22, 2020 at 5:18 am #

    Great post, Bob. Funny, yet true. When I first drafted NOLA, I discovered a propensity to name my characters with one or two syllables, and names spelled with either four or five letters. Josie’s ex was Jamie. Lou’s cousin was Lance. So, thanks to a great editor, we brainstormed other names that fit the characters, and Jamie became Ted. Lance became Douglas, which was fine except we did a blanket “search and replace” so certain words became unrecognizable. Words like badouglasd, gdouglas. My favorite is when the ambudouglas was called to the scene. Those moments are still good for a few laughs. Thank goodness my editor and I caught them before publication.

    • Avatar
      Mary Luce July 22, 2020 at 8:03 am #

      Not safe for work …

      • Avatar
        Mary Luce July 22, 2020 at 8:04 am #

        Stifling giggles over here. That was hilarious.

    • Avatar
      Carol Nelson July 23, 2020 at 6:09 am #

      I’m still laughing because I did exactly the same thing with a name change!

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    Jeannie Delahunt July 22, 2020 at 6:20 am #

    For myself, I believe names add deep dimension to characters. I think and pray long and hard over a name. I research meanings of names. I even speak the name aloud and see if the name flows with my notes on a character’s development.

    Sometimes, I’ve changed a name, that just didn’t fit as the story and the character grows. These names I put to rest to remember for future compositions.

    I have found also, that a name for one character might springboard a name for another character. I wish each of my people, even animals and settings to contain uniqueness that enriches the story.

    Thank you for the insightful information!!!

  3. Avatar
    Bill Bethel July 22, 2020 at 6:25 am #

    Still editing on my novel, but I used a phone directory to find last names and did a web search for year of birth to find popular first names.

  4. Avatar
    Lynda Irons July 22, 2020 at 6:30 am #

    Very practical! Thank you. I have two women in my latest novel (in process), Connie and Cassie… mother and mother-in-law to a young couple. I want to draw out the contrasts in the character of each of the two women. I am hoping that it will identify them better rather than cause confusion. Pondering….

  5. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 22, 2020 at 6:45 am #

    Names are really vital
    for keeping steady logs,
    grace to which I’m entitled,
    having twenty dogs.
    Labby is a Labrador;
    Red Heeler is called Red.
    I guess I could tell you more,
    but think on this instead,
    that names must quickly call to mind
    an attribute or style,
    and help you not to fall behind
    in the fell time while
    one is chewing up your shoe
    and you don’t know who you’re talking to.

  6. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver July 22, 2020 at 7:02 am #

    Andrew, your poetry is “the bomb” as my young adult kids would say. It’s always a delight to see the creativity emerge in each sonnet.

    I write blog posts which sometimes feature a crusty old mountaineer named “Uncle Rufus” or sometimes “Cousin Rufus.” We used to live near the Ozarks, so inventing hill-people names wasn’t hard. In fact, we lived near the horse-and-buggy Mennonite people also, which was an added benefit. Their old-fashioned names were a source of inspiration.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 22, 2020 at 8:23 am #

      Roberta, I’m honoured!

      We had a jack Russell named Rufus, (full name Rufus Theodore, meaning ‘rough gift from God’) and his name lent itself perfectly to progression of behaviour:

      “Rufus?”
      “Rufus??”
      “RUFUS!!”
      “Aw, crap.”

  7. Avatar
    Sally Valentine July 22, 2020 at 7:30 am #

    When I was writing my first kids’ novel, I named one of the girls Jaime. My critiquer suggested that I change that because it could be either a boy’s or girl’s name. Good advice. I changed it to Janie.

  8. Avatar
    Michelle Ule July 22, 2020 at 8:13 am #

    This is an argument for the truth of Scripture. Why would a good author include four Mary’s, two Judaism’s, several James and a John or two if the Gospel was a novel?

    • Avatar
      Michelle Ule July 22, 2020 at 8:14 am #

      Excuse the Apple spellcheck “corrections.” 🙁

  9. Avatar
    Colleen Snyder July 22, 2020 at 8:32 am #

    You say names are an enjoyable part of writing. I take issue with that statement. I HATE naming characters. Especially the “bit part” players who I will have in one chapter and not see again for several scenes, whose names I can no longer remember and have to go searching for them. Keep a list, you say? Cast of characters? What fun is that? I’m not that organized!

    I read/read (two tenses there) a lot of science fiction/fantasy. I tend to see the name and don’t try to pronounce it. I simply recognize that XXyzz belongs to that character, and that’s all that matters. I do much the same when reading Old Testament Scripture. Works well until you have to read aloud… (Malachi is the Italian prophet… “Ma-law-chi…”) Oh, the humility!

  10. Avatar
    Leola Ogle July 22, 2020 at 8:37 am #

    As a shy child, born in the late 1940s, with an unusual name I hated, picking names in my writing is my delight. But I’ve made the mistake of using similar names in my early writing. Brothers Adam and Aiden. Brothers Simon and Samuel. I love to include twins in my writing, but these brothers weren’t twins. I try to avoid such similar names now.
    BTW, I learned to love my name.

    • Avatar
      Lee Carver July 23, 2020 at 7:35 am #

      DEAR Leola, I, too, was named Leola and never liked my name. Leola is the combination of two wonderful women, Minnie Lee and Ola, but that is little compensation. When I married, I took the nickname Lee, but Mother never got over that.

      More to the subject of this blog, Bob, I’m wondering if my current WIP has a name problem. The German shepherd belongs to someone who enjoys fine music, and he’s named Shubert. Later, a bad guy named Alton Rupert enters. Both are significant characters. How do you vote? Insignificant, or change one of them?

  11. Avatar
    Kay DiBianca July 22, 2020 at 8:41 am #

    I’m having fun with names in my WIP. Several characters are (lovingly) based on people in my life, so I’m giving them surnames that are anagrams of their real names or dropping one part of the name and adding “son” to the end, etc. I try to give other characters names that have some obscure relationship to their character traits.

  12. Avatar
    Brennan S. McPherson July 22, 2020 at 10:25 am #

    Rule of thumb: start each character’s name with a different letter of the alphabet.

  13. Avatar
    Christine L Henderson July 22, 2020 at 10:35 am #

    I have always enjoyed naming my characters. I can give a villainous character a name of a personal nemesis or honoring a deceased relative for a virtuous character.

  14. Avatar
    Martha Rogers July 22, 2020 at 10:36 am #

    I love old cemeteries for historical character names, but try not to make them too unusual. Obits can give some unusual names as well. I try to avoid similar names, but in my latest novel I had twin sisters separated as babies and gave them similar names Caroline and Catherine. Their cousin was Curt, but I changed it to Kurt. Sometimes the naming may be unintentional without thinking about the two. I do try to avoid major characters with similar names.

    One thing I have done is use my grandchildren’s names in my books and they love it. They had begun to ask when I would use their name if it hadn’t already been done, so now I’ve used them all but the youngest one.

  15. Avatar
    klkexel@hotmail.com July 22, 2020 at 11:17 am #

    Thanks to a rabid genealogist in my family, I can trace my mother’s line back to the 1400s in Germany. So, I have a grove of unique names to draw from, like Thulbert, Engelbert, and Aloyisius, Gertrudis, Appolonia, and Adelheid.

    Of course, they aren’t always suitable for all stories, but they can be modernized and form the basis of one-of-a-kind names.

  16. Avatar
    Lila Diller July 22, 2020 at 12:25 pm #

    I must confess that giving characters names that start with the same letter, especially the same first syllable, trips me up! I read one book with three women who were all called nicknames, and the nicknames all started with a T. It confused me so much.

    Nicknames are tricky to begin with. I want to know how I should refer to this character in my thoughts. If three different names are constantly being thrown around, I don’t know what to call them, and I feel like I don’t know them well enough. If an author is going to use a nickname, I want them to use it the vast majority of the time.

    Likewise, I hate it when I don’t know how to pronounce a name in my head. It is a barrier to intimacy for me because I feel if I don’t know them well enough to know their name, then I don’t really relate to them or care for them too much.

    For my own naming process, I like to go to BabyNames.com and find what the most common names were for a particular year. Most people know how to pronounce the most popular names, and they are usually easy to spell, too. Having a first name that people mispronounce and misspell all the time has made me sensitive to this.

  17. Avatar
    Nick July 22, 2020 at 9:47 pm #

    As an aspiring science fiction author, important characters have meaningful names. Less important characters have less important, but still appropriate names. Unimportant characters’ names don’t matter and sometimes have no names at all.

    My main character is an erudite scholar of theology. His schtick is reading Aramaic and having a niche, situational skillset. His name is Booker. When he graduates seminary, I’ll give him the surname Bishop.

    I have a secondary character who is a sentient clockwork robot. SHE has an hourglass figure, porcelain parts in place of skin, and bronze in place of bones and joints. Her personality is kind and compassionate despite having the occupation of a hardened, unfeeling sniper. Her name is Brassheart.

    For me, names for characters are a combination of symbolism and what’s “appropriate.” Sometimes it’s a pun. Other times it means absolutely nothing and I pulled it out of a hat or random name generator.

    But most times, names are super-important.

  18. Avatar
    Melanie July 22, 2020 at 10:56 pm #

    My two main characters sprung into my mind fully personified and with names. They’re a police chief and a newspaper editor. I’ve managed to name reporters. I’ve struggled with the police officers. In my head, they’re composites of officers I’ve known, and I struggle not to give them those names. I’ve also repeatedly renamed my teen kidnap victim, mostly because I had three character names ending in the same sound. I chose to change hers, but don’t like any replacements.

  19. Avatar
    OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU July 22, 2020 at 11:51 pm #

    Thank you Bob for this post. I enjoy naming my characters and I do agree with you that readers can be confused with names. In one of my novels where the culture was for the son to have the same name as the father, I called the father Simeon the Senior and his son just Simeon. Other times , I have had to research as well so that the names fit with the time, genre and culture. It is also a good idea to help readers with pronunciation of difficult foreign names. That is something I will take away from here. Thanks for the post. Really informative and helpful.

  20. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. July 23, 2020 at 11:12 am #

    Bob, I give myself a timeline for each book and then do research into the most popular baby names for that year. In one of my books, I have a character named Brooke. It is not revealed until the sequel that her father lived in a house near a creek and that the creek played a major part in the storyline (and death) of his mother.

  21. Avatar
    Glenda August 3, 2020 at 1:05 pm #

    Too funny Andrew! 🙂

  22. Avatar
    Ines Garavelli September 9, 2020 at 10:15 pm #

    Terrific article

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  1. Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 7-30-2020 | The Author Chronicles - July 30, 2020

    […] characters bring our story to life. Bob Hostetler talks naming characters, Jami Gold thinks about characters’ jobs, Stavros Halvatzis stresses the importance of finding […]

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