Author Topic: Characters' names. A few thoughts on who, what, how, and why.  (Read 1205 times)


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Characters' names. A few thoughts on who, what, how, and why.
« on: October 31, 2018, 12:32:20 PM »
Over in the old place, MWC, someone has posted a link to a huge repository of names for those who are stuck finding a suitable name for their characters.  Very useful.  But it's important to remember a name is more than just a label.  When well-chosen it becomes 'a skin for dancing in'.  An ill chosen skin interferes with your character's dance.

If this idea interests you feel free to read on and comment if you wish.  Coming up for 1000 words, so give yourself time.


Just a few thoughts on this subject.  I used to spend half a lesson on this as a creative writing tutor and it was something which really engaged the class, producing all kinds of wild names and linkages.

A character's name is usually your first introduction to them, and first impressions really do count. 


Basically you have two choices.  A name which seems appropriate or a name which is wildly inappropriate.  Both have their uses.

A mechanic named Tom, Bert, or Joe sounds perfectly correct.  Even if their 'Sunday name is Thomas/Tomas, Bertram/Bertrand, or Joseph/Josef.  Note that the two different spellings of the same name in the latter create a very different image.  The first draws from the vast pool of biblical names, most of which have a diminutive everyday form.  Such as Zachariah becoming Zak to his friends, whereas Josef has a slight touch of the foreign and exotic about it.  Except of course to people who always spell it that way, in which case the 'ph' ending may look and sound slightly exotic.

In fiction you'll see most tradesmen/craftsmen have single syllable names, except when they're young apprentices in which case a 'y' is added to show their youth.  Billy, Tommy, Joey.  This is almost inevitable if there is an older man with the same name working with them.

Inappropriate names, which also serve to grab the reader's attention hint at an unusual background.  A Bank Manager called Rainbow, Kundalini, or Tamarind probably has Hippy parents.  Their office nameplate probably just has the initial letter, but the simple fact they haven't changed it completely tells us something about them.  If he/she was brought up on casual Hippy values but has now turned ultra-straight there has to be a hidden back story.  You may not want or indeed need to explore this part in any depth, but it adds a light touch of seasoning to the mix.

You can use inappropriate names to create a deliberately misleading impression in the reader's mind.  Stories which rely on a unisex name to set up the surprise twist to the opposite gender at the end rely heavily on this trick.  Done really well it works, otherwise it can fail badly. There will always be some readers who see Sam as female right from the start, so the twist will fall flat when Sam's infatuation with a male colleague suddenly seems perfectly normal.)

Contrasting names, can also work well.  A simple forename with an exotic surname, or vice versa.  Esme Smith.  Francesca Brown.  Sally Misericorde.   Jill Petulengro, or perhaps spelt Petulengra as a subtle twist.  Maureen Beauregarde, who may be just Mo to her friends..

Place names can be useful if stuck for a surname.   Charles Manchester sounds  quite grand, doesn't it?  But Manchester Charlie creates an entirely different image.  Manchester Charlie Ford creates an even more specific linkage, and you can probably infer he has an accent and a reputation based just on the locational nickname preceding his full name.  Americans do this with state names, such as Kentucky Bob, or Arizona Slim.

Nicknames are usually based on a habit or attribute.  Chopper could be named thus because he rides one, or because he's particularly well-hung.  Nosy, Twitcher, Leggy are named in the Seven Dwarves tradition.  Then you get big black men called Snowflake or Chalky by their close friends.

Infinite possibilities.  But, despite the infinite possibilities offered by naming, your characters must live up to their name and the impression it creates.  It has to fit them, either like a baggy clown suit (Snowflake would be a good example of this) or like a surgeon's glove.  Mack The Knife is an example of the latter.)

If it doesn't fit because you just grabbed the first 'off the peg' name you came across then it will jar.  Not the planned jarring of a deliberately inappropriate name, but the sort of jarring which makes people throw the story aside.

If you really can't find a good name then choose a deliberately bland 'placeholder' name so you can get the story told and the first draft completed.  Do not use the lack of a brilliant name as an excuse for not writing.  Anything is better than just 'male character number one'.  You may find this nothing name begins to make sense after a while, in which case your subconscious has been guiding you.

Final Warning.  It's best to avoid the name of anyone you know really well, such as family or close friends.  Why?  Because the character of the real person will tend to intrude into your story and warp the fictional character's behaviour.  As an extreme example, if you have a whore called Geraldina in your story and a terribly staid Aunt of the same name your story may stall because you simply cannot, at a subconscious level, picture Aunt Geraldina behaving like a whore.

But this doesn't mean you can't borrow a useful trait, or habit, or behavioural pattern from a real life person.  Just don't link it in your mind with the original personality.

The best characters are usually, consciously or unconsciously, composites.  The mixture of traits will create a new personality.  These are the ones who come alive, dance off the page, and surprise you.  If they can surprise you they'll surprise your readers.


It's not just the name, it's the way you use it.


Some of you may feel these are just boring old conventions, and that you want to turn them all on their heads and create something totally new.  But bear in mind these are the conventions which readers know and recognise, which gently guide them the way you want them to go.

Feel free to overturn the traditional apple cart and trample it all underfoot, but bear in mind not all broken apples produce drinkable and pleasant cider.


« Last Edit: November 16, 2018, 10:54:39 PM by Gyppo »


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Re: Characters' names. A few thoughts on who, what, how, and why.
« Reply #1 on: November 28, 2018, 09:05:31 PM »
I find that most of my characters introduce themselves by name to me, although occasionally I have to write a bit of intro before they let me know their name.
Isabella didn't give me her name until Santa asked for it :)
 In 'The marathon man' neither character has a name at all, its just "me" and "him."

For surnames, if needed, I tend to use random name generators until I find one that is right. Again characters will tell me their surname usually. Although Roxy kept hers well hidden, until it popped up on a name generator. then she was all "yep, that's my name."