If you’re a writer, there can be no greater challenge than the task of naming your characters. Years ago, I remember hearing the famous Nora Roberts admit that when she began a novel, even though she had the idea of a plot, when she started to write, she often used an X to indicate her hero or her heroine because coming up with a good name was a challenge. In that moment of time she just wanted to write the story, and she wasn’t about to stop and try to come up with a name.
She’d worry about that later--which in Nora speak probably meant that she’d take time and energy and do it right.
Because real writers don’t throw any name down on the page.
Professional writers use a number of tricks to name their characters. One is to write the alphabet out from A-Z. The rule of thumb is that no two characters in the their story can have first names that begin with the same letter of the alphabet. It makes sense really--similar sounds at the beginning of too many names would only confuse the readers -- like three sister protagonists who have the names Jill, Jane and June.
When I was writing my novel, Wild Point Island, some of my character names were made up and some were names of real historical people from a manifest of a boat that sailed from England to North Carolina in the late 1590’s. That situation created an additional challenge.
Here is a grid of the main characters from my first novel Wild Point Island. I put an asterist near the characters who were real.
E- Ella Pattenson
H- Hugh Pattenson*
L- Lily Pattenson
T-Theodore Pattenson (Uncle Teddy)*
W- Mr. Wyles*
This is the third step in my Down and Dirty, Twelve Steps to Revision. To create a story that is marketable and sells, make sure you check the names of your characters.
But let’s explore this concept further. What are the other rules of thumb when naming characters?
Make the names pronounceable and easy to remember. And to go further with that concept, unless you’re writing a comedy where irony is the rule, a character’s name should reflect their personality or appearance. Writers often research the etymology of names and even though some of the subtle nuances may be lost on the readers, it can help you feel more comfortable with your characters.
It’s also important to stick with as few variations of the name on the page as possible. Even though in real life, we may be known by different names to different people--our aunt calls us one thing, our brother calls us something else, in the world of fiction, if a character in your story is known as Caroline, Carie, Linney, Mooney, your story will start to feel like a confusing Russian novel.
It’s no wonder that an author will use an X before she comes up with the precise name she needs.
Next month, we’ll continue with Down and Dirty and explore the importance of having concrete and visible goals in your story.