Sunday, May 25, 2014

How Important are Character Names?


Why can’t I call my hero Cecil?


And other naming considerations


Names create impressions. Make sure character’s name gives the impression you want. A rose by any other name may still be a rose, but characters are not roses.

Age Appropriate

  • Cecil or Ronald, or Homer might be the hero’s grandfather, his geeky or goofy next-door neighbor or his dog, but never the hero.
  • River or Colt or Brock would be out of place in an historical novel.
  • A Scottish hero probably wouldn’t be named Boris or Jose.
  • Consider your character birth year and check on-line lists of favorite names by year.

Connotation

Connotation is tricky. Cultural, social, historical and personal factors create different connotations. For me the following connotations apply. Consider the big picture. What will you reader expect for a hero called Harry?
  • Cecil has two soft C’s, is an old name and has been associated with sissies in the past.
  • Kirk and Logan and Parker, with hard consonants, are connected to film heroes, actors and policemen and sound strong.
  • Julian, Jean-Paul and Dominic have a foreign hint for some and a taste of the familiar for others.
  • Dexter, Sheldon, and Gibbs are now linked to their TV characters, each having distinct characteristics.
  • Names of famously wicked men can deter readers. Hitler put an unpopular spin on Adolf. Ted put a taint on the last name Bundy.

Be Practical

You will be typing this character’s name several hundred times. Make it easy on yourself.
  • Travis may work but Travis’s becomes awkward not only in typing but also in sound for the reader.
  • Mackenzie is acceptable as a first name, but unless you plan to shorten it to Mac most of the time, you might reconsider.

Vary the Ethnic Origin

North America, and many other countries, are a mix of uncountable names from a plethora of backgrounds. Too many Bill's and Ed's or Juan's and Carlos limit your story. Consider using a variety. 
  • Ethnic names can enhance your setting and book's culture. Consult your favorite baby name book for ethnic associations.
  • History influences names in an area. What nationalities settled the community in your book?

Consider the Cast Call

Clarity is affected by characters’ names. If you don't want to send your reader flipping back through pages to figure who is who, differentiate the character names.
  • Avoid multiple names starting with the same consonant or ending in rhyming sounds.
Sam, Sally, Susan, Sharon and Sean or Mary, Terri, Kerry and Larry cause confusion.
  • A hero Carter and an antagonist Cary will be difficult to keep straight.
  • If you have five witnesses with matchy-poo names, make changes--unless you are deliberately confusing your detective (and reader).

 Generational, social, cultural and media connotations come into play when naming your characters. Be aware of what your character’s name says about them. Use names as characterization tags. Have fun. 

What is your favorite character name?

1 comment:

  1. Well, since our novels are our babies, today I'm thinking Dominic for my newest baby. I like ethnic names. But try to pick a name according to a last name. If the last name is McCallum it's not likely he was Dominic - or Wolfgang (Wolf) - another iffy name? But Wolf as a hero sounds strong. I like your matchy-poo advice. I've read books that confused me because of that. A very good article.

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