What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare’s famous line from Romeo & Juliet should by all accounts be a golden rule of thumb – and far be it from me to argue with the master! However, I find myself wondering if the sentiment applies to character names? Would your readers relate to the handsome, kind and sensitive male protagonist if his name were Spike? Likewise would your female antagonist, the bane of practically everyone’s existence, pure evil personified, pack as much punch if her name were Noelle?
It’s obvious to most of us that names come with a degree of assumed characterisation. Anyone who has ever tried to name a baby will know that it’s incredibly hard to find a name that doesn’t also remind you of a former colleague, an ex, an irritating boss, the next-door neighbours dog etc. etc. etc. We are surrounded by names and whilst some we find appealing, others make us cringe and wonder “what were his parents thinking???”.
When you’re writing a novel your characters names are often a reflection of their personalities. We want people to accept the inherent personality traits that “belong” to a given name and create an image of the character that harmonises with the one you are attempting to portray in the pages of your book.
So how do we go about this? Well, there are plenty of articles out there to give you an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Here’s a breakdown of the steps I’ve taken myself and rules I’ve tried to stick to:
- Pick a name that reflects the characters culture, age and personality traits. Do the research and make a list of names that were popular in the country / culture, and decade your character was born in. What do the names mean? Are there cultural expectations connected to your chosen name? Anticipating these factors will allow you to provide your characters with names that feel “real” to your readers.
- Avoid hard to pronounce and difficult to remember names. As exotic and appealing as the names may be to you, they may just be too difficult for the average reader to pronounce and remember. So, unless you plan to provide a glossary with a phonetic pronunciation guide, maybe pick another name.
- Some names are so “famous”, using them would be fairly pointless unless you’re writing fan fiction. If you want your characters to be unique to your novel, avoid names which will remind your readers of others with the same name. Bella, Khaleesi, Bond, Hermione … need I say more?
- Make sure your character’s names are indistinguishable from each other. Providing us with a John, Jack and Jacob all within one plot, will leave us with a confused reader.
- Stick to the naming rules of your genre. Real world characters have real world names. Fantasy characters don’t have to!
At the end of the day your characters are yours and their names are up to you to decide. I found this to be a fun exercise and like naming my children, I found names I fell in love with and that match my characters perfectly!