You should name your characters with as much care as you would name your children (or pets, in my case). Although it can be tempting to rush through this stage and dig right into the action, you risk sacrificing a big part of your characters’ identities if you don’t give adequate thought to the issue. Here are a couple of common issues with character naming, and some of my top tips of overcoming them.
Some years ago, a friend of mine asked me to help him draft a script for a radio drama – not many of those around anymore! Well, I’ve only trained in prose but as my friend had absolutely no background in writing, I figured I could still be of use. So, I was given a rough premise for the script. It was to follow a group of teen friends living out in the wilderness and so on. That was no problem. But something that did raise a red flag for me was the names he had picked out for these five ordinary teenagers; Anna, Jamie, Mark, Ellie and… Dreadnaught. I still remember this list because I spent a few minutes laughing and crying into my keyboard after I read the proposal.
The problems here are obvious; first of all, I have never met a regular teenager with a name like ‘Dreadnaught’. And second, this name is completely out of place with the other characters. It would make sense to use a noticeably different name for a character with a noticeably different role. For example, if Anna, Jamie, Mark and Ellie were regular teens but Dreadnaught was some sort of alien demon from the centre of the Earth, it would be a good idea to differentiate him in this way. But it’s no good to just throw in a weird name for the sake of it. Remember, no matter how much you want your characters to come across as cool-and-awesome, your readers can only suspend their disbelief so much.
And let’s say you decide to eliminate the problem of having one character stand out by naming your teen heroes Ragnarok, Trogdar, Princess Inferno, Dreadnaught and Gragthor the Destroyer. In some ways, this is a marginal improvement since your audience won’t spend the whole time wondering why Dreadnaught is the only one with a weird name. But you will still be left with the problem of the names not fitting the characters or the setting. Sometimes you see a person who ‘looks like’ a Laura or a Heather. But you never see someone who looks like a Trogdar.
Issues like this are obvious to most people (apart from my radio-drama friend, apparently), but coming up with a solution is slightly more complex. My best tip is to create ‘name pools’. These are groups of names that seem to fit together in the same world and setting. Sounds simple, but it can actually be quite tough.
If you’re writing in the real world, I suggest looking up a directory from the time and place that your story is set in. This should give you a ready-made name pool to start out with. You just need to narrow it down. If you’re writing in fantasy and using real-life names, a similar method can also be applied. Make sure that the names of your characters have similar origins so that they sound as though they belong in the same world.
If you’re using made-up names, your job just became a little harder. You will need to come up with some more detailed rules that govern names in your world. Some good questions to ask are…
- How common are double barrelled names?
- Are people called just by their first name, first and middle, first and last?
- Can apostrophes be used to add pauses?
- How many syllables is common?
- Which letters are the most common?
- Are the names vowel heavy? Consonant heavy?
By coming up with your own set of guidelines, your names will feel as though they belong in the same setting and your readers may not even realise why.
I hope this article has been useful to you. If you enjoyed it, please click like and follow, and join me again next week when I will be talking about “The Details” – how much is too much?