Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Poor Dick Filthey, or, Rules for Character Names Part 1

Dick Filthey Logic Puzzle

I love logic puzzles.

They’re are often written tongue-in-cheek and rely heavily on puns, but I guffawed over the moniker, “Dick Filthey” in this puzzle I worked recently about bad reporters writing for the Daily Muckraker. It led me to thinking about naming the characters in my stories and novels.

Character names are vital. A good one becomes part of the character’s entire persona, lending credibility, resonating with readers, even adding subtly to the subtext or theme of the story. A bad name will toss a reader out of the story and have them laughing, or cringing, each time it’s read. It may even turn your book into a wallbanger.

Names should be accepted  by the reader, not analyzed or dissected for meaning. They should enhance without being obvious.

Here are some things I try to keep in mind when choosing names:

  1. Choose a name that reflects the character.
    If your hero is (for example) strong and charismatic, name him something that sounds, or can be perceived as, strong or charismatic. Of course there’s a bit of a judgment call here, but Robert or James beats Biff any day of the week in my book.

    This logic applies to the heroine in the book as well. If she totes a gun or drives a starship, you probably don’t want to name her Sissy.

  2. Choose a name that reflects the time period.
    Do your research. If you write steampunk, for example, you’ll want to choose Victorian-age names such as Liza or Benedict and refrain from using modern appellations such as Aiden or Britney. (Here’s a fun Steampunk Name Generator.)
  3. Choose a name that reflects the region or ethnicity of your story.
    This should go without saying, but if your story is set in Italy (for example) you’ll want your character’s names to reflect the region (unless they are simply visiting  Italy). Name your character Paulo instead of Paul or Lucia instead of Lucy.
  4. Don’t name your characters with similar sounding names.
    This is especially terrible if you have more than a few characters. Similar sounding names can cause confusion, making it difficult to keep them separate (not to mention that it gets hard on the ears) to read only about, John, Jacob and Jessica.
  5. Don’t worry about the hidden meanings of names.
    Many baby name lists also supply an origin or meaning of a name…but limiting yourself to choosing a name that means “strong” or “pretty” or “wise” can lead to bad choices. Keep in mind: how many people actually know the hidden meanings of names?

Minor Rules
These rules are less important (in my opinion) than those above, but still valid.

  1. Don’t use names ending in “s.”
    Names ending in “s” can be difficult when using the possessive form. (Do you use ‘s or s’?)
  2. Don’t use the name of someone famous.
    It’s not a bad idea to check out the name you’ve chosen in a good internet search engine. You may have picked a famous (or infamous!) name without realizing it. Maybe the reason your name sounds “so perfect” is because you’ve heard it before.

  3. Avoid “Cute” Spellings.
    It’s trendy to find an alternate spelling for common names these days, but why make the reader figure out that “Chehllie” is pronounced “Kelly”?

  4. Avoid Gender Neutral Names
    Who’s the male lead, Chris or Pat or Sam? Maybe it’s Terry? This list grows yearly as names such as Taylor and McKenzie are added to the mix. Androgynous names really only pose a problem at the beginning of the story, until the reader sorts out who is who…but again, why make it hard for the reader?

Although I’ve called these “the rules,” it’s not necessary to abide by any of them. In fact, I’ve broken more than one or two of these in many of the stories I’ve written. It’s when more than a few of them are broken in the same story that trouble starts to happen. It pays to be cognizant of the overall picture when you’re naming your characters.

Next Time: Genre Writing and Names


Resources: – A long list of name resources on the internet.

6 comments to Poor Dick Filthey, or, Rules for Character Names Part 1

  • Diane Scott Lewis

    I agree! Too similar sounding names can be a chore, also names ending with s as you said. I have a friend who uses the same names over and over in her short stories because “she likes those names”. I’m always trying to show her how many names are out there to use. I agree about naming people for the region they live in, escpecially in historical novels where people didn’t travel as much as they do today. I try to sprinkle in Cornish names for my novels set in Cornwall. I love to find the perfect name to “describe” my characters. That’s part of the fun of writing.

    • Hi Diane! I can’t imagine using the same names over and over again in stories. All my characters are so different, I feel like the same names wouldn’t fit. I’m with you: I try to find the perfect name. Sometimes, that results in way too much time on line spent “researching” instead of writing! Other times, I’ll put “XXXX” in place of the name in my manuscript until the perfect name comes to me.

  • Great post. I get hung up on names. If names don’t “feel” right, it literally stalls the story until I find ones that do. An interesting interview with a songwriter warned me against “mythologizing” a character with an over-the-top name. You don’t want it to attract too much attention to itself.
    There are a few great baby name sites that provide popular names for each generation.

    • Hi Cate! I know what you mean about not having a name literally stalling your work. Have you tried just using the wrong name, just to push through the manuscript?

  • The first book I ever returned to my English teacher had name issues.

    I told her I could not write the book report because I could not figure out who the MC was.

    I don’t remember the title. She let me choose another book.

    I do remember the character names were Harry, Hank and Henry. The teacher tried to convince me to stay with the book and explained that those were all names for the same person.

    Now, who would do that to a High School girl?

    Thanks for the topic.

    Sally the Writer

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