Monday, August 6, 2012

What’s in a Name? Naming Your Characters—Guest Post by Jodie Renner

by Jodie Renner, freelance editor, @JodieRennerEd

P1070629_CloseupHave you ever read a book where the name of the main character was jarring to you, seemed inappropriate, or just wrong?

Or have you mixed up two characters because their names were similar? Or said “Who’s that?” because suddenly the author started using a character’s nickname or first name, when previously all you knew was their last name? What you choose to name your characters can be the difference between annoying/confusing your readers and having the story flow naturally, with all the little details falling into place to make a seamless, believable story world.

A few years ago, I did a critique of a novel in which the cruel, abusive father was named “Danny” and his eight-year-old abused son was named “John.” I definitely thought “Danny” sounded much more like a nice kid than a nasty adult, and why not give the young boy a more kid-like name, like “Johnny”? Switching the two names would have worked fine, too.

Here are some tips for naming your characters:

- Avoid too-common and too-forgettable names like “Jim,” “John,” “Bill Smith,” or “Bob Jones.”

- Avoid really weird, unusual names that draw attention to themselves — unless it’s for a really weird character!

- Choose a name that fits the character’s personality and role. Don’t name your he-man hero “Harold” or “Wilfred,” or your despicable villain “David” or “Josh” or “Jordan” or “Richard” or “Jason” or “Matt” or any other very popular name. People don’t want a nasty bad guy to have the same name as their brother, boyfriend, husband or son.

- Avoid old-fashioned names for contemporary characters, like “Ebenezer” or “Cuthbert” or “Gertrude” or “Henrietta” or “Josephine.”

- Also, to reflect the actual makeup of North American society, be sure to use some characters and names from other ethnic backgrounds besides Anglo-Saxon.

- If you’re writing historical fiction, research common names for that era and location. Don’t make the mistake of calling your 18th-century heroine, for example, “Taylor” (used only for males in that era).

- Even for contemporary fiction, don’t name your 50- or 60-something male Jordan or Brandon or Justin or Tyler or Kyle, as those names weren’t popular for babies 50 or 60 years ago. There are several websites where you can find the most popular baby names for any given year. Here’s a good one: Just type in the year to see a list of popular baby names for that year. For example, if your mail character is 52, here are some of the most popular names for boys in 1960: David, Michael, James, John, Robert, Mark, William, Richard, and Thomas. If you’ve got a 20-year old male, some of the most popular baby names for boys in 1992 were: Michael, Christopher, Andrew, Matthew, Joshua, Brandon, Tyler, Ryan, Zachary, Justin, and Kyle.

- From typing in the year of birth on the same website, here are some popular names for a 16-year-old girl, born in 1996: Jessica, Ashley, Taylor, Samantha, Alexis, Sarah, Megan, Amanda, and Stephanie. For your 25-year-old spunky, savvy heroine, some popular names for girls born in 1987 were: Jessica, Ashley, Amanda, Jennifer, Sarah, Stephanie, Brittany, Nicole, Megan, Melissa, and Danielle. For a 60-year-old woman, Linda, Patricia, Nancy, Karen, Barbara, Susan, Deborah, Carol, Sandra, Donna and Sharon were all very popular names in 1952. And an 80-year-old woman born in 1932 might be named Mary, Betty, Norma, Doris, Helen, Mildred, Dorothy, Joan, Ruth, Shirley, or Alice, among other possibilities.

- Don’t confuse your readers by naming different characters in the same story similar names, like two guys named “Jason” and “Jake”; or two women named “Eileen” and “Ellie.” In fact, it’s best to avoid using the same first letter for different characters’ names in the same book, or even similar internal sounds, like “Janice” and “Alice”; or “Helen” and “Elsie.” You can help the readers out even more by varying the number of syllables of your main characters’ names.

- Be flexible about the names you choose. As your story and characters develop, you may decide to rename some of them to suit new character traits they’ve taken on. Then you can just use your “Find and Replace” function to change the name throughout the whole manuscript in seconds.

- Finally, what about characters who are called different names by different people? That can get confusing for readers who are barreling along trying to keep up with your fast-paced plot. Suppose you have a female police officer named Caroline Hunter. The other officers call her “Hunter” at work, her friends call her “Caroline” and her family calls her “Carrie.” It would be unrealistic to have her friends and family call her “Hunter” just to help the readers out. So, as a reminder, be sure to throw in her full name from time to time, like during introductions or whatever. Also, if you start out a scene using “Hunter,” it’s best to avoid switching to “Caroline,” as the inattentive reader might suddenly wonder who this Caroline is who just walked in. Keep “Hunter” for that scene, with perhaps the occasional use of her full name. If she’s with her parents and sister, she’ll be “Carrie” but you could throw in the “Caroline” or “Hunter” somewhere, just as a reminder, like when she’s answering the phone, or when a neighbor kid addresses her mom as “Mrs. Hunter,” etc.

- Stumped for a name? Look through the phone book or name books, or Google “popular names in the 18th century” or “popular Irish names” or whatever. As you’re searching, make lists of names and nicknames that appeal to you for future writing, under different categories, like “hero,” “heroine,” “male villain,” “female villain,” “best friend,” “minor tough guy,” etc.

What about you? Have you ever read a book where you thought the main character’s name was “off”? Or you got confused as to who was who?

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction, as well as mainstream, YA and historical fiction. For more info on Jodie's editing services, please visit her website.