Tips for Dealing With Character Names

Tips for Dealing With Character Names
Terry Odell

Character NamingLast week, John Gilstrap addressed coming up with character names, and there were a lot of helpful suggestions in the comments.

I tend to hit the Google Machine. “Male (or female) Names Starting with …” is a frequent search. Another thing to add to that search is the year/decade that character was born. Name trends change with time.

I had a shocking realization when seeking a name for a character in a recent book.

Names have to “match” the characters to some extent. For me, it’s a loose match. Our country is so much of a melting pot that names often don’t match one’s ethnicity, and it’s often a stereotype to try to give them “appropriate” names. I recall my daughter, when she was in middle school, asking if her friend Kiesha could come visit. What’s your first visual? Probably not the blue-eyed blonde who showed up. But if I want an ethnic name, I just add that to my Google search.

This week, I thought I’d expand on John’s topic, because coming up with names is only part of the problem. You’ve cleared the choosing names for your characters hurdle. But there are pitfalls to avoid so you don’t confuse your readers.

A tip I picked up at a workshop was the reminder that the characters should sound like their parents named them, not you.

Major warning: Names shouldn’t be too similar to other characters in the book.

This mean no Jane and Jake, or Mick and Mack, or Michael and Michelle—and that includes nicknames. If everyone calls Michael Mike, and there’s another character named Norman, but Norman’s last name is MacDonald and everyone calls him Mac, then you’re setting things up for reader confusion. I recently read a book where the author had fixated on the letter B for character names, and these were major players, not bit parts. I don’t think I ever got them straight.

Many readers see the first few letters of a character’s name and connect it to whatever image they’ve created for that character. Your character might be named Anastasia, but the reader might be thinking “The blonde woman with the A name.”

So, how do you keep track so you don’t confuse or frustrate your readers? Here’s my system.

The late Jeremiah Healy prefaced one of his workshops with a very vocal complaint about character names in books. He said, “How hard is it to take a sheet of paper, write the alphabet in two columns, and then put first names in one, last names in the other?”

Now that we’re using computers, instead of a sheet of paper, I use a simple Excel spreadsheet. When I name a character, I fill in a blank field in the appropriate line. This lets me see at a glance when I start to fixate on a letter. I hadn’t been to Healy’s workshop when I wrote What’s in a Name? but when rights reverted to me, I used the spreadsheet and was shocked at what I’d discovered. THREE characters named Hank? Okay, only two, but the third was Henry “but you can call me Hank.” I still haven’t forgiven my then editor for that one.

This is what I found when I went through the book:
(You can click to enlarge the images)

Character NamingIn addition to making minor revisions to the text, you can be sure I updated the character names. Here’s the “after” spreadsheet.

Character Naming TipsOther considerations. Foreign names might be realistic, but what if a reader is unfamiliar with the name, or its pronunciation? One of my critique partners wrote a book with a family of Irish descent, and she’s calling one of the characters Siobhan. (If I were naming a character that, the first thing I’d do would be to set up an auto correct, because I’d probably spell it wrong more often than not.) But typing it right is the author’s problem, not the reader’s. Do you know how to pronounce Siobhan? (shi-VAWN) If the author tells you, when you see the word do you “hear it” or is it strictly a visual?

(With apologies to Brother Gilstrap, I never see/hear his character Venice as Ven-EE-chay, no matter that he’s made the pronunciation clear. To me, she’s “Not Venice” in my head.)

And then, there’s a whole new set of problems. Audiobooks. When I started to put my books into audio, I had to focus on what things sound like as well as look like. In my third Triple-D Ranch book, the heroine’s ex-husband’s name is Seth. Her sister’s name is Bethany. They don’t look very similar on the page, but when spoken, I’m concerned that they’ll sound too much alike, especially if they’re in the same sentence. Or even paragraph. I don’t want my narrator stumbling (or calling them both Sethany).

All right, TKZers. Share your tips for keeping track of character names.

Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellNow available for Preorder. Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

36 thoughts on “Tips for Dealing With Character Names

  1. Terry, I don’t think that enough can be said about character names. I’m finding as I grow older that if there are more than a few characters in a book I am reading that I lose track of who is doing what to who (in the words of a famous limerick). Giving each character a distinctive name, dissimilar to others in the book, is helpful. I notice that some authors are occasionally using names that readers might associate with famous pairs or groups in the real world. A pair of hitmen might be named Sam and Dave, or George and Martin, while a trio of mercenaries might be called John, George and Paul. It helps. Thanks for adding more to the topic.

    • Thanks, Joe. The part of my brain devoted to remembering names is shrinking daily. A writing partner (who writes fantasy, which is a challenge for me to remember) thought–and later regretted–that if he gave family members names starting with R, it would help readers. Sadly, not this one. I have enough trouble remembering names I can recognize. I also had people tell me my girls weren’t twins when they were out in the stroller–not because they’re fraternal and looked nothing alike, but because “their names didn’t rhyme!”

  2. Great post, Terry. I like the spreadsheet idea. I don’t have any great tips to add for keeping track of characters. With finishing up #4 in a fantasy series, I’ve finally started keeping a notebook. And in the fantasy genre I can create some strange names. But it’s time to put my notebook into a spreadsheet format, and make it easier to find things.

    Thanks for all the good ideas!

    • Thanks, Steve. For me, since I do all my writing at the PC, anything easily searchable is a boon.

  3. Terry, what a great point about soundalike names in audiobooks. I’ll keep that in mind for future characters.

    Too many of my characters have names that end with “y” or “i” or “ie.” Tawny, Virgie, Smoky, Mimi, Obie.

    All our pets over the years had names that ended with the long E sound, too, almost as if that sound is an endearment.

    • I think there is something for that “EEE” ending with names. Our Nicole was Nickie; Jessica was Jessie when they were little. I recall stepping into the den when Nicole had a group of friends over, and using her “Nickie” name, and all her friends stopped and stared. “It’s Nicole now, Mom.” I think her grandmother can still get away with calling her Nickie.

  4. And remember that if your character name ends in “S” you are forever condemned to possessive hell…

    • Which is why James Williams became James Williamson in the current novel.
      I was stuck with Travis, though. He’s a carryover from another book, although his nickname is T-Bone, so I could avoid that layer of hell part of the time.

  5. I use a database for my book bible. In it, a have a list of unused names that I collect which are available to use and harvested from a variety of places, from sports to cemeteries. It also shows me who’s who in the story alphabetically and I can sort by first names or last names. It also tracks by series so I’m cognizant of names in the other related books. The trick is the homonyms. Maybe I pick the perfect name and later that name shows up beside another and I groan when I realize it may not be alliterative, but it rhymes. The twins in my current series were Molly and Polly ?

    • Families do like to rhyme or stick with one initial. (They can share monogrammed luggage that way). It’s still not the best idea in fiction. I stopped reading a series where all 3 daughters had 4 letter M names, and they called their mother “Mama.” My brain’s too old.

      • A friend married Derrick D. His dad is David and his brother is Darryl. Their son is Dylan. She drew the line there. Dylan’s sisters are not DDs.

        • I have a cousin (male) named Leslie, who married a woman named Leslie.

  6. Great point about similar sounding names, Terry. Reading our work aloud helps catch those pesky annoyances. Names ending in “s” is a pain, too.

    • Yep – we have to watch out for names that look alike and names that sound alike. Names that might have negative connotations for readers. Names that might confuse readers. Names that might trigger the wrong image for readers. Some days, I just want to give them all numbers.

  7. I saw the title of this post and KNEW it was yours, Terry. You are so good with names. I never get confused in your stories like I sometimes have in other books.

    • Thanks, Priscilla. Good thing you didn’t read the original version of What’s in a Name?

  8. As I’ve mentioned before, I generate names with Scrivener and keep open the list of characters in the “binder.” That way I can see all the names at a glance and adjust accordingly.

    What I have to watch out for is using the same first name for a major character that I used a few books ago. I rely on the noggin to give me nudge in this regard, then do a Spotlight Search on Mac to see if and when it has appeared before.

    • I think it’s about having a place where you can see the names, be it a word doc, a notebook, Scrivener, Excel, or whatever. I’ve started keeping all books in a series in the same spreadsheet, separated by books, to avoid having characters with the same names (but not the same characters) show up in too many books. I was looking back at my “Nowhere to Hide” for a fight scene I could modify for the new book, and discovered that there’s a Manny Rodriquez working at the gym in Orlando. And “he” just happens to be the PT instructor for the Blackthorne, Inc. series. Someday I might write something to explain that.

  9. I was told early on to not have all my character names start with the same letter. I use a baby name book, World of Baby Names because I like my ethnic name, and when I’m coming up with a name, I automatically eliminate the letters I’ve already used.

    Ethnic names, though, are hard. Like you, Terry, I wouldn’t be able to spell a complex name if I chose one, so I made a rule for myself. I have to be able to pronounce it when I first look at it. It eliminates a lot of possibilities, but so far it has worked. African names in particular are really long, usually at least ten letters long.

    • Good for you if you can eliminate initials you’ve already used without having a chart for reference. I definitely can’t (as in obvious from the “before” spreadsheet above. I was relying on memory at that point, which failed me big time.

      • It helps that I don’t have anything published. As I write more, I realize that I’ll have to be more careful when the time comes, and also have to make sure my characters don’t sound alike book to book (obviously I make sure the characters in a any given story don’t sound alike). How do you avoid falling into your own patterns?

        • That’s why I use the spreadsheets. I check to see what names I’ve used, what letters are “available” and hope for the best.

  10. As a reader, I have trouble keeping a lot of characters straight, especially if they have similar names. I also don’t like characters whose names are difficult to pronounce. Oddly enough, Louise Penny has a highly successful series whose main character is Inspector Gamache. I always tripped over the name when I was reading one of her stories. (It’s pronounced Guh-MASH). It appears a lot of her readers had the same problem since she provides a pronunciation guide to her series on her website.

    I do love names that have a hidden meaning.

    • I can’t do justice to Hercule Poirot, but that didn’t seem to hurt Agatha Christie. Hidden meanings can be interesting, but realistically, do parents know when their babies are born what they’re going to turn out to be?

  11. If YOU can’t remember characters’ names, I doubt your reader will, either. Just a thought when you fill your book with perhaps too many characters. Character consolidaton where a number of characters’ roles become one character’s role is a very good thing.

    A good friend writes wonderful cozies, but she suffers from what I call Cast of Thousands Syndrome. She starts her first series novel with a group scene in which all the heroine’s coworkers or family are introduced. Each character enters the scene, does a little song and dance so you have some idea of who they are, then the next one enters and does the same thing. At this point, the novel opens up, and even more characters are introduced. I’ve never been able to convince her that only the characters who play a direct role in that one mystery need to be introduced. I’m sure her books are often put back on the bookstore shelf after a possible reader’s eyes glaze over within a few pages.

    Sometimes, I don’t “name” characters at all but give them characteristics. Two of my characters are trapped in a large mansion filled with secret entrances and trap doors, and they play cat and mouse for several chapters with three hired goons as they try to escape. The viewpoint character first identifies them by their voices–really large stupid guy, whiny little guy, and the quiet one who gives orders. When they finally come face to face for the physical confrontation, the voices become the bear, the weasel, and the wolf because the voices fit the visuals as well as the personalities.

    • Although one of my crit partners doesn’t like it, I have two characters in the current novel referred to as “Tiny Woman” and “Big And Beefy” because that’s how the character sees them.
      I read a similar book to the one you’re describing. The last one I ever read by that author. I try to limit named characters in the first few pages as much as possible. Preferably not more than 3.
      As for having too many characters–If we’re introduced at a party, I won’t remember your name five minutes from now, so I think it’s more of a “My problem.” I’m just not good with names. And after 30+ books, there are a lot of names to keep track of.

  12. Speaking to the ethnicity issue and not the keeping track of names topic, I have an uncommon Finnish surname. My first name is English, and this means there aren’t a lot of people out there with my name. A few years back I discovered that there is a Nigerian woman with my name. We don’t look alike. At all. I found this amusing. Well, last week I saw a story on the national news, and one of the interviewees was a Filipina with, you guessed it, my name it. It was so weird. So, one uncommon name, and three totally different ethnicities. Go figure.

    • Thanks for sharing, catfriend. This is another reason I’m not overly concerned with the ethnic backgrounds of many of my characters when I’m picking names. They do provide a shortcut for readers, but aren’t always “accurate.”
      My maiden surname was Carter, and if anyone remembers Battlestar Gallactica, there was an actor whose name was the same as mine, and I used to get a kick out of seeing “my” name in the credits with the image of a large Black man.

  13. Ah, the dreaded age paradox. (In reference to your blog post about the “shocking realization”, Terry.) Similar to that strange time lens that makes all of our highschool friends look “so much older” than us. Heh.

    As a fantasy writer, I don’t have to worry about generational name trends. I merey have to avoid the dreaded “apostrophe gimmick.” Double heh.

    But in a 9-5, put beans on the table job, I write letters for insurance. If ONLY I could share some of the whoppers I’ve seen! Let me put everyone’s minds at ease on this one; there is no combination you could cobble together that would top what’s out there in the real world. Ethnicities definitely collide!

    I love the Excel sheet idea. I do something similar, but in Word format. I also keep a running list, complete wirh pronunciation guide, specific to each book in the series. Right now, as I have only the short story prelude published, not the full-length series, these are mainly for betas, but what fantasy series doesn’t come complete with World Map and a Compendium/Glossary? (That’s only halfway tongue-in-cheek. I do intend to have both.)
    It helps to get them to new betas right away, though. To this day, four books later, I still have a character that all betas refer to as “Butane.” (No, it’s not close.)

    • You should see what I call my fantasy author critique partner’s characters. There was one book where he had his computer come up with the closest “normal” name and used those for his subs, then replaced them all when he was ready to publish.

  14. I like using difficult last names for walk-on characters who are just important enough to be named in the one scene in which they appear. (My first-person narrator is scrupulous about naming everyone except in crowd scenes.) That’s when I trot out names like Olszewski, which are fairly common but many readers can’t pronounce with confidence.

    I also noticed that people with the same title are easily confused if the names aren’t wildly different. I had a Miss Carlson and a Miss Dawson. Too similar. Miss Dawson became Miss MacAllister.

    For last names, I experimented with assigning last names alphabetically in order of appearance. I forget what happened to “A,” but after that, I had Barron, Cartwright, Dickson, and Edgarton, which is too many “on” names, but other than that it worked pretty well. At that point, I thought it was getting too obvious and fell off the wagon. Next time I’ll scramble the alphabet so no one will penetrate my nefarious scheme! Bwah-ha-ha!

    • I’ve done some where I start naming characters alphabetically, so you’re not alone. But things get tricky when it’s a series, you’re writing book 10, and some of the names are already established.

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