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7 Tips for Naming Characters

by Greer | Content Lead | Writing Tips | Characterisation

As writers, we can see our characters - good or bad, important or irrelevant - as our children. Extensions of ourselves, or at the very least semi-representations of what we can create. As such, naming them is a joy and privilege we are right to value. However, the process is not always straightforward, and for every easy decision is one that seems to take longer than we would care to admit. To save you some time, effort, and from falling into some name traps, let's look at 7 useful tips to help you make the right choices for your cast.


Avoid Celebrity Names:


Madonna, Beyonce - do these famous people own their own names? Of course not, but that will not stop their likeness and nature overshadowing any originality you plan to put into the character sharing their name. This distracts from your personalised traits and backstory, and cheapens their appearance as readers consistently place the famous face in their place. Toss in the reality that your readers will have a varied opinion of said celebrity which could negatively impact on how open they are to your creation. When you pour your efforts into building up a person from your mind, the last thing you want is for them to be judged unfairly. Lastly, celebrity names will likely age your characters, tying them to a particular time period of that celebrity’s popularity. Fame can be like a splash in a pan, and a somebody of today could be a wash-up or downright crook in a decade or two's time. There's literally no upside for using names closely linked to celebrities, so avoid at all costs!



Use Names Ending in ‘S’ Sparingly


Look: We Got Story has nothing against the likes of ‘James’, ‘Charles’ or ‘Iris’, and such names should most definitely be included in a story if the author thinks them best for a character. However, for your audience who read aloud - or at least use their inner voice to narrate as they go - it can become tiring coming across phrases such as ‘James’ senses’ or ‘Charles’ sister’. Say those examples out loud now and imagine such phrases appearing on every page. Eventually, it gets a bit much. For audiobook listeners, and their poor voice actor, it can become painful if there are multiple characters with names ending in the ‘s’ sound. By all means, if a name just fits perfectly, do not let the pesky 's' at the end get in the way. Just be considerate by keeping those names limited in your cast and your readers will be more than grateful.



Consider Time and Place


Names come in and out of fashion, and more are constantly being invented and lost. Add more authenticity by choosing period-appropriate names which would not be out with the realms of possibility. Ryder and Kaiden may be household first names today, but for a pre-21st century setting they would have raised more than a few eyebrows. Similarly, if your character is a modern-day thirty-year-old, there will be names which may seem too old for them. A little research online should clear up any confusions. The same advice applies also to location, as popular names in one part of the world may be completely alien in others. This will likely require deeper digging, as some cultures may associate additional meanings or stipulations on a given name which may spell trouble if your character doesn't fit the bill. There is a myth surrounding the name 'Wendy', namely that JM Barrie - author of Peter Pan - invented the name for his 1904 novel. As it happens, the name did actually exist prior to his story, but it was so unknown that Barrie may as well have invented it as per the myth's claim. This means that when Candace Trundell penned a novel set in 17th century Wales, she was understandably called out for a lack of research over key character Wendy. A cheap shot, true, but do not think you will be given more lenience if you choose a name which does not fit the time or place your story takes place!



Sidestep Hard-To-Pronounce Names


If a reader feels the need to pause each time they reach a particular character’s name, you may have chosen a name that is too tricky to be anything but a hindrance. Each time a reader pauses, they are taken out of the fictional world you have put them in as they try once again to decipher the pronunciation of a character’s name. Common issues stem from names containing letters that are either pronounced differently to what is expected - looking at you, Sioban! - or where the letters are simply not pronounced at all. Unusual or excessively convoluted names may seem attractive by being unique, but they will soon lose the appeal when readers spend far too many moments stopping to study its spelling. Breaks in the reading flow is not what you want! JK Rowling admitted to including a scene in the fourth Harry Potter book simply to teach her readers the correct pronunciation of the name 'Hermione' ('Her-my-oh-nee') - a desperate move but somewhat understandable! Consider too that some readers admit skipping over hard names altogether after a while, not wanting to try anymore. If that doesn't depress you, I don't know what will.



Consider ‘Boring’ Names


Unique names are great - no, really! - but that doesn't mean you should shy away from traditional, ‘boring’ names. Contrary to what you may think, they could be hugely beneficial! Studies show over half of readers prefer classic, ‘less distracting’ names over unusual ones. Consider literature's celebrated works: most of our greatest pieces of fiction are headlined with some of the time periods' most normal of names. It has been theorised that special names can make it harder to connect on a personal level between character and reader. Readers like to see elements of themselves in the story, which is considerably easier to achieve when the characters are not set apart with a 'superior' name. Obviously, in settings such as fantasy there is an expectation that your trio of heroes will not be named Tom, Dick and Harry, so take this tip with a grain of salt!



Drop Similar Names


Let's get visual. Earlier we looked at names that can be tricky to read out loud - an auditory and verbal issue - but our eyes are not all forgiving either. Names with the same initial letter (Bill/Ben), end letter (Billy/Mary), names that rhyme (Sam/Pam), or have the same number or syllables (Tom, Bob, Ann) are our problem areas. They have the ability to confuse readers, especially if these characters are often mentioned in the same scenes or paragraphs. On paper (or screen, in the case of an eBook) the visual effects can make it difficult to easily separate names with a strong resemblance. It may seem odd, but it is best avoided if you can!



Don't Waste Time


The ‘perfect name’ does not exist, and you are doing yourself a huge disservice by spending hours searching for it. You are simply wasting your own time. Try not to get hung up over finding a particular name with a specific meaning unless it has a key role in the plot. Even if they love your story, few readers will look up your name meanings or spend much time at all weighing up your choices for each character's title. Don’t put off writing just because a good name escapes you. Consider ‘space saver’ names, which stand in place for a better name you know you will find after you finish writing.

Bonus Tip


Having taught creative writing, I have created several fun methods that help newbie writers create a cast of characters they can have an immediate connection to and who reflect at least a version of society. I'd like to share one favourite that could also lend itself to naming your characters. I call it 'School Day Cast'. The idea behind this method is utilising a cast you likely already have - a class at school you remember well. If you were homeschooled or if you struggle to recall enough people from your younger days, this will need to be adapted to something else, such as staffing at a workplace. The benefit of the class, however, is that you will have a large variety of personalities and names in the one setting with the only real links between them being their age and location. Since we're only considering names in this article, you can do this fairly quickly by jotting down who you were in class with growing up. It takes five minutes and could save you a lot of stress scanning name sites. Avoid using your old classmate's real last name, personality or actions with the character sharing their first name - you don't want any lawsuits if they happen to read your story! Naming your cast should be an enjoyable experience, so don't let the stress of 'getting it right' stop you from this important milestone in your writing journey.


As writers, we can see our characters - good or bad, important or irrelevant - as our children. Extensions of ourselves, or at the very least semi-representations of what we can create. As such, naming them is a joy and privilege we are right to value. However, the process is not always straightforward, and for every easy decision is one that seems to take longer than we would care to admit. To save you some time, effort, and from falling into some name traps, let's look at 7 useful tips to help you make the right choices for your cast.


Avoid Celebrity Names:


Madonna, Beyonce - do these famous people own their own names? Of course not, but that will not stop their likeness and nature overshadowing any originality you plan to put into the character sharing their name. This distracts from your personalised traits and backstory, and cheapens their appearance as readers consistently place the famous face in their place. Toss in the reality that your readers will have a varied opinion of said celebrity which could negatively impact on how open they are to your creation. When you pour your efforts into building up a person from your mind, the last thing you want is for them to be judged unfairly. Lastly, celebrity names will likely age your characters, tying them to a particular time period of that celebrity’s popularity. Fame can be like a splash in a pan, and a somebody of today could be a wash-up or downright crook in a decade or two's time. There's literally no upside for using names closely linked to celebrities, so avoid at all costs!



Use Names Ending in ‘S’ Sparingly


Look: We Got Story has nothing against the likes of ‘James’, ‘Charles’ or ‘Iris’, and such names should most definitely be included in a story if the author thinks them best for a character. However, for your audience who read aloud - or at least use their inner voice to narrate as they go - it can become tiring coming across phrases such as ‘James’ senses’ or ‘Charles’ sister’. Say those examples out loud now and imagine such phrases appearing on every page. Eventually, it gets a bit much. For audiobook listeners, and their poor voice actor, it can become painful if there are multiple characters with names ending in the ‘s’ sound. By all means, if a name just fits perfectly, do not let the pesky 's' at the end get in the way. Just be considerate by keeping those names limited in your cast and your readers will be more than grateful.



Consider Time and Place


Names come in and out of fashion, and more are constantly being invented and lost. Add more authenticity by choosing period-appropriate names which would not be out with the realms of possibility. Ryder and Kaiden may be household first names today, but for a pre-21st century setting they would have raised more than a few eyebrows. Similarly, if your character is a modern-day thirty-year-old, there will be names which may seem too old for them. A little research online should clear up any confusions. The same advice applies also to location, as popular names in one part of the world may be completely alien in others. This will likely require deeper digging, as some cultures may associate additional meanings or stipulations on a given name which may spell trouble if your character doesn't fit the bill. There is a myth surrounding the name 'Wendy', namely that JM Barrie - author of Peter Pan - invented the name for his 1904 novel. As it happens, the name did actually exist prior to his story, but it was so unknown that Barrie may as well have invented it as per the myth's claim. This means that when Candace Trundell penned a novel set in 17th century Wales, she was understandably called out for a lack of research over key character Wendy. A cheap shot, true, but do not think you will be given more lenience if you choose a name which does not fit the time or place your story takes place!



Sidestep Hard-To-Pronounce Names


If a reader feels the need to pause each time they reach a particular character’s name, you may have chosen a name that is too tricky to be anything but a hindrance. Each time a reader pauses, they are taken out of the fictional world you have put them in as they try once again to decipher the pronunciation of a character’s name. Common issues stem from names containing letters that are either pronounced differently to what is expected - looking at you, Sioban! - or where the letters are simply not pronounced at all. Unusual or excessively convoluted names may seem attractive by being unique, but they will soon lose the appeal when readers spend far too many moments stopping to study its spelling. Breaks in the reading flow is not what you want! JK Rowling admitted to including a scene in the fourth Harry Potter book simply to teach her readers the correct pronunciation of the name 'Hermione' ('Her-my-oh-nee') - a desperate move but somewhat understandable! Consider too that some readers admit skipping over hard names altogether after a while, not wanting to try anymore. If that doesn't depress you, I don't know what will.



Consider ‘Boring’ Names


Unique names are great - no, really! - but that doesn't mean you should shy away from traditional, ‘boring’ names. Contrary to what you may think, they could be hugely beneficial! Studies show over half of readers prefer classic, ‘less distracting’ names over unusual ones. Consider literature's celebrated works: most of our greatest pieces of fiction are headlined with some of the time periods' most normal of names. It has been theorised that special names can make it harder to connect on a personal level between character and reader. Readers like to see elements of themselves in the story, which is considerably easier to achieve when the characters are not set apart with a 'superior' name. Obviously, in settings such as fantasy there is an expectation that your trio of heroes will not be named Tom, Dick and Harry, so take this tip with a grain of salt!



Drop Similar Names


Let's get visual. Earlier we looked at names that can be tricky to read out loud - an auditory and verbal issue - but our eyes are not all forgiving either. Names with the same initial letter (Bill/Ben), end letter (Billy/Mary), names that rhyme (Sam/Pam), or have the same number or syllables (Tom, Bob, Ann) are our problem areas. They have the ability to confuse readers, especially if these characters are often mentioned in the same scenes or paragraphs. On paper (or screen, in the case of an eBook) the visual effects can make it difficult to easily separate names with a strong resemblance. It may seem odd, but it is best avoided if you can!



Don't Waste Time


The ‘perfect name’ does not exist, and you are doing yourself a huge disservice by spending hours searching for it. You are simply wasting your own time. Try not to get hung up over finding a particular name with a specific meaning unless it has a key role in the plot. Even if they love your story, few readers will look up your name meanings or spend much time at all weighing up your choices for each character's title. Don’t put off writing just because a good name escapes you. Consider ‘space saver’ names, which stand in place for a better name you know you will find after you finish writing.

Bonus Tip


Having taught creative writing, I have created several fun methods that help newbie writers create a cast of characters they can have an immediate connection to and who reflect at least a version of society. I'd like to share one favourite that could also lend itself to naming your characters. I call it 'School Day Cast'. The idea behind this method is utilising a cast you likely already have - a class at school you remember well. If you were homeschooled or if you struggle to recall enough people from your younger days, this will need to be adapted to something else, such as staffing at a workplace. The benefit of the class, however, is that you will have a large variety of personalities and names in the one setting with the only real links between them being their age and location. Since we're only considering names in this article, you can do this fairly quickly by jotting down who you were in class with growing up. It takes five minutes and could save you a lot of stress scanning name sites. Avoid using your old classmate's real last name, personality or actions with the character sharing their first name - you don't want any lawsuits if they happen to read your story! Naming your cast should be an enjoyable experience, so don't let the stress of 'getting it right' stop you from this important milestone in your writing journey.


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