Thursday, July 19, 2012

Things Not to Name a Character

One of my favorite parts of developing a new story is naming the characters.  I have noticed, however, that there are a few "rules" of names to avoid that keep things from getting off-track.

1) Created names that are too evocative of real words.  Now, sometimes this can work--you want to hint at a trait or plot point through a name.  Think Greek myths--we know that the story of Arachne is going to relate to spiders because, well, her name basically means spider.  And the storyteller wants us to be aware of this, and it's not a bad thing that we "get it" right away. Often it's either too obvious or unintentional.  When it's too obvious, it can ruin a great plot twist--if, say, it's a giant twist that your character Atalante is actually a reincarnation of the Greek mythological character Atalanta...well, you kinda gave it away too soon.  (PS Wouldn't a contemporary YA based on that myth be kinda fun?  Maybe sparring cross-country runners end up romantically entangled?  There could be apples?  Anyway.)  And when it's unintentional, your readers end up associating your character with things you don't want them to.  I once read a piece with a character named (something like) Aerola and I'm sorry, that's just way too close to a part of the feminine anatomy.

2) Some names are just off-limits.  I was once talking baby names with a friend who happened to like German names, and expressed regret that the name Adolph is pretty much ruined at this point.  (Seriously, Hitler--you not only plunge the world into war and perpetrate the worst genocide history has ever seen, you also ruin a perfectly good name for the rest of us.)  When naming characters, you have to consider what those names mean in a social, cultural, and historical context.

3) Impossible to pronounce names.  Look, it's tempting to get super-creative with naming when you're approaching a story, especially one set in a created world.  I say go for it--create away.  But keep in mind that it's frustrating to readers to approach a name so riddled with apostrophes or crammed with consonants that they can't make heads or tails of how it's supposed to come across phonetically.  It even gets confusing when trying to remember who's who--when you can't rely on your memory to tag a character to a name because the name is so complicated, it spells trouble for a reader trying to enjoy the book.  One of the reasons Martin's Fire and Ice series is so approachable, in my opinion, is because his naming devices are so approachable.  Even people not too big on fantasy could connect to the world and its characters quickly.

4) The same name as another character, or nearly the same name.  So I'm currently reading Lord of the Rings (yes, a little late on that bandwagon).  And can I admit that Tolkien totally threw me by naming both a hobbit and a pony "Fatty" something? I forgot about the hobbit briefly and couldn't figure why the pony was talking.  Yeah, so, careful reading on my part would have avoided that, clearly.  But a) you're not Tolkien and b) even if you were, don't make things harder on your reader by having two Johns or Susans or even every other name beginning with "A."  Vary things up.

What do you think?  Is it ok to break these "rules" or do they make sense for your writing, too?  What about guidelines for a name that works?


  1. I guess I have it fairly easy as I name based on popular names for the time period I am writing in. Now "Julienne" was a bit of a stretch for 19th century America, but I gave her a French mother from New Orleans to even the score!

    I have to admit that the nearly unpronounable names are what turn me off of fantasy novels. It's too distracting!

  2. Oh lordy that LOTR thing made me laugh... probably because that is the exact same thing that happened for me :)

    I have no idea how to name characters :( They often end up being called Bob until a stroke of genius (haha yeah right) hits me :D

  3. Caroline--I love Julienne! I think with historicals it can get easy to get "stuck" on the most common names--but of course some people had less common names, too!

    Ravenna--I'm so glad I'm not the only one! I felt like a real dunce!