This page contains affiliate links. Full disclosure here.
As Nancy Kress says, “Characters have to be called something. And since they do, you may as well . . . make your names contribute to world building, characterization, and plot development.” To that end, here’s what the craft masters have to say about choosing character names.
Is this post on names really necessary?
“A name is often the reader’s first introduction to a character,” says Rebecca McClanahan, “and first impressions are important.”
“Names can convey a great deal about the character,” says Tina Jens. So “Make the choice count. Don’t name your hero John Smith unless he’s a Pilgrim or wallflower.”
Ms. Kress says, “Names can convey much information before a character utters a single line of dialogue. Exploit the power of names and nicknames to suggest family background, ethnicity, age, and class–or deliberately make names play against reader expectation.”
Make sure names suggest what you mean to convey
“Pay attention to the connotations of any name you want to use,”says Deborah Chester.
“Names affect our initial impressions of people including fictional people,” says Ms. Kress. “Thus, you can use the naming of your characters to affect how readers perceive them. In fact it’s surprising how much information a reader may assume from a simple name, including family background, age, personal relationships, and personality traits. Since these automatic assumptions are going to happen anyway, it’s in your best interest as the writer to control them.”
Be especially careful if your character’s name suggests the opposite of who he really is. As Ms. Kress says, “Names follow a general rule in fiction that the farther you stray from reader expectation, the more obligated you are to explain how you got there.”
What’s in a name?
Ms. Kress says, “Some writers think of the name first, and the name suggests their character’s personality.”
If I remember correctly, Gail Carriger created Alexia Tarabotti this way: the name came to her first, which led to the character being of Italian descent . . . but the story (Soulless*) was intended to be a Steampunk comedy of manners set in England . . . so this contradiction led to Alexia being part of a blended family, a sort of Cinderella with stepsisters . . . and that led to having an absent and mysterious Italian father . . . who’s backstory influenced Alexia’s front-story and so on . . .
Ms. Kress says, “The ways your character modifies her birth name can also be used as a characterizing device,” says Ms. Kress, and “as with names bestowed on a birth certificate, consider how your character feels about his or her nicknames.”
Ms. Jens says, “Give him a nickname. You may never use it in the story, but nicknames do a good job of highlighting the essence of the character.”
Ms. Kress says, “Consider what your character is called by his parents, children, children’s friends, personal friends, enemies, colleagues, neighbors, lovers, the press, and the local cops. Then consider whether these names might change over the course of the relationship.”
“Names imposed on others say something about the relationship,” says Ms. Kress. “The names others call your protagonist without his permission can also be used to create characterization, tension and plot developments.” In short, “what we call each other has meaning. Exploit it.”
Alex Epstein says, “Whether you’re on a first-name or last-name basis with your character tells us a lot. Just as in real life, we’ll feel more intimate with someone we know by their first name than someone we know by their last name.”
Ms. Kress says, “Not everyone in your story needs to address your character the same way. In fact, variations in address can be a subtle and sure way to indicate variations in relationships.”
Ms. Kress says, “Surnames, and sometimes first names as well, indicate ethnic background . . . and readers will have different expectations . . . . You may choose to work with these expectations or deliberately flout them, but you should realize they’re there.”
“The rule of thumb is: the farther you move from the commonly accepted background suggested by ethnic names, the more explaining you must do. On the other hand . . . not all ethnic names carry the same evocation of family background,” says Ms. Kress. Some names are “a blank slate, and you will have to do all the work of drawing [the character] well.”
“An additional point about ethnic names: This is a diverse world. Some stories have a ‘closed’ setting, in which nearly all the names are logically” from one particular culture or another.
Mr. Swain says, “Names also characterize by telling of age.”
Ms. Kress says, “Names can also plant a character in a given generation.”
“Your character’s name will also reflect her parents’ personal choices, which in turn characterizes her family life,” says Ms. Kress.
Ms. McClanahan says, “The names we give characters do more than merely suggest personality traits. They also establish characters in time and place, and suggest ethnic and religious backgrounds, social and financial status, even parental aspirations . . .”
“A character’s nickname also provides descriptive clues for our readers,” says Ms. McClanahan. “Since a nickname is usually given by close friends or family, it also offers insight into a character’s personal relationships as well as suggesting a character’s history and the events that have shaped him. Relating how a character got his nickname can open up a straightforward narrative, providing background information that might otherwise be difficult to insert.”
Nancy Kress says a “name subtly prepares us for what comes next, and the fact that the subsequent story matches the name reinforces our faith in the author. We can trust her. She knows what she’s doing.”
I believe George R.R. Martin named his dire wolves in this way, foreshadowing the fates of their owners.
Importance to the Story
“You don’t have to give all characters names,” says Alex Epstein. “It can be useful to leave secondary characters with a descriptive monicker rather than a name . . . That way the reader knows she won’t have to keep track of them later.”
Hero names often sound heroic or every-day Jane: Harry Potter, James Bond. Villain names often sound evil: Voldemort, Goldfinger
“What about using a name whose meaning either characterizes the person or reflects your theme? There are two dangers here: pretentiousness and obscurity,” says Ms. Kress. In other words, sometimes it can be heavy-handed, and sometimes your readers may not get the reference.
Ms. McClanahan says, “Certain names suggest larger ideas and themes, even symbols . . . But unless you’re writing an allegory or a parable, you should be cautious about using a name with symbolic overtones.”
Steven James agrees on not going overboard with making your names mean something. “Readers are smart,” he says. “They’ll identify this stuff and then start looking for how you use every character to represent something. That exercise in story evaluation disconnects readers from the story itself.”
Make names easy on the reader
“Don’t give characters in the same story similar names (Jean and June); it can be confusing,” says Ms. Kress. “The exception to this is when you want it to be confusing.”
“The name by which you refer to your character should be consistent,” says Ms. Kress. Again, this is because you don’t want to confuse the reader.
Last, both Ms. Chester and Mr. Epstein say that readers prefer character names that they can pronounce. Unpronounceable names distract from the story.
Well, that’s it for me.
What about you? What do you think about when choosing character names? Tell us in the comments!
If you found this post helpful . . .
1. Like it and share it
There are share buttons below . . .
2. Subscribe to the Blog
If you’d like to receive the Tools in your inbox as soon as they post, you can subscribe right here:
3. Subscribe to the Newsletter
If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the newsletter. It’s a monthly-to-quarterly-ish (that’s still vastly overstating it) newsletter to share news and free worksheets and whatnot. Your welcome email will include the 19-page Character Development Workbook.
4. And if you found it particularly helpful . . .
Also, people have been hiring me to review their loglines with the kind of analysis seen here and here, and I’m enjoying it. So, if you think your logline (or something else!) might benefit from a looksie and want to hire me to review it, email me at writeswithtools @ gmail dot com.
We’ll look at how the story masters make the most of their details. See you then!