Character Names Create Great Stories

From Nameberry:

I may be the world’s only novelist who’s also a name expert, which makes it doubly ironic that I was compelled to change my own character names.

But when Darren Star, creator of Sex & the City, made a television show based on my novel Younger, he changed the name of my heroine Alice to Liza and that of her young colleague Lindsay to Kelsey. Alice’s daughter’s name Diana was given to Alice’s boss, whereupon the daughter became the generationally-appropriate Caitlin.

My new novel Older, the sequel to Younger published today, uses the character names from the TV show rather than from my original book. At this point, it would be confusing any other way.

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I originally named the heroine of Younger Alice because of her Alice in Wonderland experience of living in the upside-down world of the younger generation. But Alice is an overused name both in literature and on the screen. There were notable characters with the name both in the movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and its TV adaptation Alice, and Alice Kramden was Ralph’s wisecracking wife in the classic Jackie Gleason Show.

The name Liza, on the other hand, is free of other strong character associations. It’s generationally ambiguous, reaching its apex in the mid-1970s, around the time my heroine would have been born. All in all, I have to confess, Liza is a more original and better character name than Alice.

Kelsey and Lindsay, meanwhile, are basically the same name. As a name for Hilary Duff’s character, Kelsey has the advantage, though, in peaking a bit later than Lindsay, in the early 1990s, perfect for someone who’s supposed to be in her late 20s. And Lindsay is perhaps too reminiscent of the actress Lindsay Lohan.

The best character names in realistic, contemporary works of fiction support the character’s background and personality rather than dominate it. If you’re writing a broader work – a fantasy book or period piece or graphic novel – you can have a lot more fun with character names. Albus Dumbledore and Daenerys Targaryen, Ebenezer Scrooge and Lyra Silvertongue are amazing character names created by J.K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin, Charles Dickens and Philip Pullman. Those names raise the bar even higher for authors looking to compete with Harry Potter or Game of Thrones.

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When you begin a novel, it’s a good idea to create a timeline that shows when your characters were born, graduated, hit certain milestone ages compared with notable world and cultural events over the same time period. What names were most popular the year your character was born, what names were used more quietly, which might have been associated with major figures of the day, and which weren’t used at all?

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Names like Jennifer, Michael, John, and Sarah convey an Everyman or Girl Next Door feeling. If that’s what you’re going for, fine, but that puts more pressure on the characters to prove themselves individuals deserving of our attention.

Link to the rest at Nameberry