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Naming the Characters


Once you have created your characters, you have to name them. They have to appeal to the majority of readers. It is not enough to flip open the baby names book.

Names carry connotations. Readers sees a name and make a connection to family or friends or society. It can be positive or negative depending on their personal experiences or what happened in the recent past. If the news has been full of a serial killer deeds, people will remember his name (for a while) with loathing. And some names will unfortunately remain in people’s memory for decades, unlike the names of heroes. If on the other hand a person saved others in a tragedy, then many new parents will name their child after that person. Some names that were trendy ten years ago dates the novel and gives it an outmoded feel.

Names may gives the idea of strength, weakness, sweetness or dependability. Use the names to convey aspects of the character’s personality. Some authors, especially in the romance genre, repeatedly use the most common first name. Jane, Jack, etc. and common family name such as Smith. Those names are timeless but also spineless. They do not indicate anything about the character.

Many readers are aware of the names’ meaning or origins. For example, Melissa comes from the Greek word for honey bee. Bees make honey, honey is sweet, Melissa is associated with sweetness. The pronunciation of the name is soft, unlike a strong sounding name like Kelly. The first letter K is a hard sound. M is a soft sound. An author who names a kick-ass character, Melissa and a nurturing homebody, Kelly misses the effect that those names would have had if reversed. Same with masculine names, Trent and Gary are strong sounding whereas Jimmy and Elvis are soft sounding.

The family names that you attribute to your characters should also be distinct from their first names. Unless you need to create a special effect, avoid having Cassie Casswell, or Grey Grenfell.

A pitfall for authors is naming characters with similar sounding names or starting with the same letter, Sherry and Sharon, Becket and Bennett. There are names with religious or ethnic connotations. Unless it is important that the character is discreetly identified as belonging to a religion such as Isaiah or Moses, or an ethnic group such as Aisha or Achmed, it is best to avoid those names.

As a writer you hope your work will be distributed widely and translated into other languages. Some names do not travel well abroad. For example, in North America, Ashley is a popular name for girls. In Britain and Australia it is a boy’s name. Randy is an acceptable name in North America. In Britain it is slang for being over-sexed. British readers might be amused unless it is an inspirational novel, then it might be banned in that community. If you name a female character Jean, in French that spelling denotes a masculine name. Of course you hope the translator will avoid that by translating Jean as Jeanne to avoid confusion.

Finally, the names have to reflect the setting in some form. A historical novel has characters with names that are no longer in use, just as there are expressions in the language that are now obsolete. A contemporary novel needs names that are current but not so trendy as to make it “old” in a few years time.

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