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When You’re Naming Characters

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August 8, 2013 by Jen Cudmore

When it comes to choosing names for your characters, the worst thing you can do is just pick something out of thin air. Assigning a name should add strength and validity to the novel. Baby books and genealogy websites can be good resources. Whatever your method, be sure to put plenty of thought into it.

First, consider their backstories.

  • Nicknames: Sometimes nicknames are more powerful than a character’s real name because they are more intimate. They also define a character. And yet there may be times when a long, formal name is more appropriate.
  • Ethnic and regional names: If you hear the name “Billy Bob” don’t you automatically assume the person is from the south? When I was working on my Lawmen novels, I had one character of Italian decent and one Native American, so I searched for a name that fit their heritage. Be careful to match the name with the heritage. A person from Scotland cannot have a German or Chinese name – unless it somehow adds conflict to the story.
  • Generational names: Remember that hundreds of years ago nobody was named Jessica or Brandon. Researching history can reveal many names to choose from. When I started my Viking novels, I wrote down every name that appeared in the research books I read. This provided a starting point for choosing names for my Viking characters. Whether you’re writing during the Roman Empire, the Crusades, or the Renaissance, you’ll need a name that sounds like it came form that time period. Knights, Pirates, and cowboys all need names that were popular back then.
  • Symbolic names: You must consider the feeling that a specific name conveys. A princess should have a name that sounds sweet and pretty. A Navy Seal will need a name that sounds strong and courageous. One of my favorite names of all time is Bill Myer’s character Wally McDoogle, a young boy who is always getting into mischief in the My Life As series. Doesn’t that name sound ridiculous? Just saying it makes you want to laugh, which is the goal of the stories.

Second, be sure all your characters have different names so it’s easy for the reader to identify them. As a general rule, start each name with a different letter. And stay away from rhyming names. These can make following the characters difficult for the reader.

Do you have any tips for naming characters?


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