What’s in a Name

Mechanics Writing
Naming characters is a fun process. But before you dive in head-first, there are a few things to think about that will help you choose the very best names. Let’s break this down…

Think: Time-Period

If you read a lot of books from the 1800s, you will encounter names like Horace and Hester, but I doubt if you’ve met anyone in your generation or the one before sporting a name like that. Likewise, in ancient Mesopotamia (an old name for an area located in the Middle East), you would never want to name the King’s nephew Jake. Especially since the King would be sporting a mouthful-of-a-name like Shar-kali-sharri!
One thing I like to do when picking out names is do a quick Google search for the top names for the character’s birth year. It gives me a good idea of what was “in” when their parents were naming them. It’s hard to say what names will be like in the future, but if you’re familiar enough with names from other works of futuristic fiction, you should be able to come up with something that will ring the futuristic bell in your readers’ minds.

Think: Culture

In modern-day America, it isn’t unusual to find people named Sung, Fernando, and Jaques all living on the same street. However, it’s important to realize that when names like these are used, readers will often assume the characters have immigrated or their parents did. They will expect the obvious ethnicity of their names to have something to do with who they are. In other words, don’t name just anyone Jaques; make sure he either lives in France or has a good reason, relevant to the story, for being so obviously French.
Mariachi band | Wikimedia

Even among Americans, there are sub-cultures. (If I need something culturally specific, I Google something like “top Hispanic names” for the character’s birth year.) I honestly can’t see a blonde, blue-eyed girl from Maine being named Talitha any more than I can see the members of a Mariachi band from Arizona being named Larry, Bubba, Joe-Bob, and Stinky. Could happen, but it better be for a reason that has a major part in your plot!

Think: Sound

Have you ever read a book where the main characters’ names all began with the same letter? It can become rather exhausting trying to remind yourself who, exactly, we’re talking about each time something happens. This seems to happen most often in books about families. While it may be cute to name the children in your fantasy story Dorain, Destra, and Dronnan—your readers will eventually tire of it. Try to avoid alliteration among main characters.


Also, even if their names do not begin with the same letter, try to avoid using the same sound (especially if the book is likely going to be read aloud). Sorry, either Ethan or Ian might need a new name.


Also steer clear of names that sound alike in other ways: try not to have three best friends named Charlene, Darlene, and Marlene as your main characters. Cheesiness aside, it’s going to be downright annoying to sort out after awhile.


One other thing to consider is not just varying the sounds of the names, but also their length or number of syllables. Even if someone is speed-reading to finish reading just one more chapter before bedtime, they’re going to easily catch that Alexander said one thing, Jim said another, and Daniel is the one who broke up the fight that ensued.


So, crack open that baby name book or Google some name lists, and have fun!
Perry (a boy’s name, usually) Elisabeth Kirkpatrick (a Scottish name—and I’m not even Scottish. Welcome to the melting pot!)
What's in a Name?
(Originally published by Perry Elisabeth on http://word-painters.blogspot.com/)

6 thoughts on “What’s in a Name

  1. Well done. I needed something just like this for an author who named two Russian characters Boris and Natasha. Hopefully, sharing this will convince her that was a bad idea.

  2. I had a client who insisted on having three characters named Daniel and one named Danyel. To his credit he made it work and even had the characters complaining there were too many Daniels about.

    Another piece I consider with names is the formal/informal nature of the name. Robert says something different than Bob. The higher up the social ladder a character is, the more likely I am to give them a multisyllabic moniker, and use the full barrelled name. In historical fiction, you can’t jump to first names as you can in contemporary fiction. Proper introductions are an absolute must, and even then people are not called by their Christian names until permission is given to do so.

    In fantasy I use a combination of your comments and the above to create boundaries between people without needing to explain. The reader isn’t surprised that a Marriette de Languiers is going to get into trouble with her family for meeting a guy named Art.

  3. Nothing takes me out of a story quicker than names being out of place or just wrong for the culture/time/place etc. This was an interesting read too 🙂

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