Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Calm Down About Naming Your Characters

The process of naming characters is one that writers tend to over-complicate, just like they do with writing cover letters or the first lines of their stories. There is plenty of advice out there on how to come up with realistic-sounding names for science fiction and fantasy or where to look for names in the real world. Whatever your method for coming up with character names, just remember to watch out for these common pitfalls:

Try to avoid names that are difficult to pronounce. Even if your audience isn’t reading your story out loud, they’ll usually attempt to decipher the pronunciation of any names they come across. For their sake, it might be easier to shorten or change complicated names. A character named Vyacheslav might go by the easier-to-read nickname of Slava, for instance. This will make the name easier for your readers to remember.

Avoid choosing too many names that all begin with the same letter. I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s useful advice. The first letter of a name is always what will stand out most to the reader; in the case of difficult-to-pronounce names, the first letter might be the only thing your readers understand! Sean, Saladin, and Soo-mi are going to be harder for your readers to keep separate than Mike, Saladin, and Bo-yeon.

This problem gets even worse with names that share several common letters. If you have four main characters and three of them are named Tiala, Tahi, and Tolai, your readers will probably have trouble remembering who is who. It doesn’t matter if the letters are in a different order—our minds take in the whole word at once, and an h looks a lot like an l when we’re reading quickly. Remember: at the beginning of the story, your readers are already having to remember whole waterfalls’ worth of new information. Don’t make it harder for them by giving them several names that are virtually similar.

This is a problem that I often see crop up with twin characters. Naming your twins Tyler and Taylor might seem fun, but it will make it all sorts of difficult for your audience to keep them separate. Now, if you don’t want your readers to keep the twins separate—if you want them to essentially function as one unit at all times—then matching names shouldn’t be a problem. But there’s no need for your twins to have matching names, otherwise.

Hesitate before picking a name with special meaning. This is a temptation that I understand all too well. An easy way to name characters is to simply pick an important aspect of their personality or their role and to then find a name with that meaning. For instance, Darth Vader’s name literally means “father” in German, while Mufasa means “king.” This isn’t always a bad thing—we all love Vader and Mufasa, after all—but it is over-done and, in this age of the internet, potentially spoiler-riffic. You’ll often be better off choosing a meaningless-but-original name over a meaningful-but-heavy-handed name. If Star Wars had been released now, how long do you think it would have taken for the internet to figure out Vader’s identity based on his name? Not long. Too many villains have the root “mal” shoehorned into their name; quite a few protagonists have been named some variant of "Hiro" . . . and how many demons out there are named some version of “Crowley?”

I can think of three off the top of my head.

Make sure you have the correct era and nationality. This is simply a matter of taking the time to do your research. Don’t name your Russian character Kowalski—that’s a Polish name. Don’t name a woman in 1800s England Carly—that name didn’t really become common until the 1980s. If you’re not familiar with the naming conventions of the place or time, then do some research or ask someone who is familiar with them.

Don’t worry. Here’s the thing about character names—if you do a good job creating a deep, realistic, and engaging character, then it won’t matter what you name them. A good character will make just about any name seem to fit them; they will redefine people’s conceptions of what the name means. For instance:

When I first began watching How I Met Your Mother, I was completely thrown off by the fact that they named one of their characters “Barney.” I mean, come on—Barney? We all know what comes to mind when people hear that name.

But after a few episodes, Barney’s name ceased to bother me. After a few seasons, my mental picture of the name had been completely and permanently altered. That’s what a good, strong character can do.

So don’t worry about picking the perfect name for your character. Write a good character, and they will be able to make just about any name work for them.


  1. Meaningful names are only a problem if there's a spoiler involved. So Darth Vader was a bit of a risk, but everyone knows from scene one that Mufasa is a king so there's nothing wrong with naming him that. And Good Omens is a satire. Bad jokes are part of the territory.

  2. Meaningful names are also overdone. Even in comedy, they can grow tiresome and repetitive. "Crowley" wasn't as common back when Good Omens was written; but nowadays, if you name your demon that, you'll just look unimaginative. They're not always bad, true; that's why the actual advice was to *hesitate* before picking a meaningful name. Consider the benefits and detriments first.