Naming Fictional Characters: 10 Tips to Avoid Pitfalls

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From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

The old-school advice for naming fictional characters was to comb the obituaries. But not a lot of people get newspapers these days, so we need other sources of inspiration.

For me, spam is turning out to be one of the best places to find unique names. Every week I cull a few from my email and blog spam folders. I can always perk up a story by subjecting my heroine to a nasty boss named Hieronymus Weatherwax or a blind date with Snively Hassan. And I love the creativity of the three-first-names catfishers who try to friend me on Facebook. I’m using the catfisher name “Brownie David Jack” in my current WIP, Catfishing in America.

This week the loverboys who woo me on FB Messenger have come up with a new way to approximate American names. They’ve discovered the suffix “son” and gone to town with it. I found several messages from suitors named things like Kevinson Paulson, Ericson Peterson and Johnson Phillipson. Who knows? One of those names might work for some awful rich frat boy from your heroine’s past.

. . . .

1. Always Google your Characters’ Names!

I once wanted to name a porn star Peter McHugh until a Google search showed a local politician with that name. I don’t suppose he would have welcomed one more off-color joke.

And you want to make sure there’s not a real Galveston Ngyen, or you might find yourself in an embarrassing situation.

Sometimes failing to Google a name can lead to more than embarrassment. A few years ago author Jake Arnott created a thoroughly villainous character who was a London cabaret singer in the 1960s. He gave him the name Tony Rocco. Unfortunately, it turned out there was a real Tony Rocco who had been a cabaret singer in London in the 1960s. Lawsuits ensued.

2. Choose Names that Fit the Character

Would Jack Reacher be such a phenomenon if Lee Child had named him Phillidus Frogmore? Would Miss Marple have been able to do all that surreptitious investigating if Agatha Christie had called her Fifi LaRue?

Inappropriate and misleading character names are what prompted this post. You don’t want to give a character a name that sets up the wrong expectation in your readers. If you need to give your protagonist a name that goes against type, explain why as close to the opener as possible.

This week I tried to read a mystery with a sleuth named something like Fatty. Somewhere in the third chapter we were told he was tall, blonde and athletic. But because of his name, I already had a picture of the guy in my head…and that wasn’t it. If he got his name before a successful stint on The Biggest Loser, I needed to know that sooner.

Sometimes a name shows up on the page and we don’t even know where it came from. Those can be unique and inspired. But don’t commit to the name if it doesn’t fit the character,

And although you want your characters to have a memorable names that fit their personalities, beware getting too Dickensian. Unless you’re writing humor, names as outrageous as Dickens’ Master Bates, Wackford Squeers or Serjeant Buzfuz may take your reader out of the story.

3. Choose Names that Begin with Different Letters

It’s best to vary the length as well. You want to choose names that look different from each other on the page. Names that begin with the same letter will always confuse the reader. So don’t give your heroine rival boyfriends named Tim and Tom unless she can’t tell them apart either.

This gets tougher as you move along in a series. If you carefully name the villain du jour something that’s not at all similar to your recurring characters, you may end up with villains’ names that sound too much alike instead. If the bad guy is named Vincenzo in Book 3, Victoria in book 4, and Vidor in Book 5 you’ll confuse your series readers. (Or telegraph who-done-it too soon.)

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

6 thoughts on “Naming Fictional Characters: 10 Tips to Avoid Pitfalls”

  1. My favorite example of this mixes comics, hockey, defamation, and internet jurisdiction:

    Doe v. TCI Cablevision, 110 S.W.3d 363 (Mo. 2003), later op. sub nom. Doe v. McFarlane, 207 S.W.3d. 52 (Mo. App. 2006)

    which involved a hockey enforcer-but-not-a-goon-no-never-that who inspired an organized crime figure in a comic book… which would not have come to the attention of the hockey player inside the statute of limitations but for the similarity of names, which led to a reporter’s question. (That bit isn’t, of course, in the official reports!)

    • Which is why you should search the name before using it. Although, in this day and age, I would expand on the OP. Do so just before publication (assuming you’re just clicking the button for self-publishing; the trad pub lead times are a whole different problem) and save the first few pages of results you get back.

      The first you should do because of the “insta-fame” effect of the Internet. If one dug down through several years of published works, for instance, I would bet that you would find more than one character named “David Hogg,” but published well before more than a very few people knew about that loud-mouthed idiot (especially as “Hogg” is rather popular to denote such in fiction).

      The second because there is so much information in the search results these days. Unless the name is very uncommon, you are going to get quite a few hits, what with the bots trolling through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and anywhere that names appear (such as State Bar Associations…). You want to be able to prove that “Yes, there is a person or are person(s) named that. No, there were no significant similarities between my character and any of the people with that name who were known at that time.”.)

    • Disclaimer

      This book has been edited for content and formatted to fit between the covers. Characters and events have been altered for the purpose of Story. Similarities are neither intentional, nor accidental, but rather unavoidable.

  2. Or you can do what Larry Correia does.

    You pay him to use your name and he donates the money to charity.

    Last I heard he was still going through the names from the last time he did it.

  3. I especially endorse the advice to vary the first letter of the primary characters’ names, especially since a reader’s reaction of “which one was that?” violates the absolute cardinal sin of fiction writing in my view: don’t break the reader’s trance.

    • I second that and add another: consider the internal letters, too. And especially how they could sound.

      I had the name “Puk” slated for one of my younger prehistoric characters. Putting aside the resemblance to the Shakespeare character’s name, I was sounding it out to myself as “Pook.” It finally took two different beta readers to point out what they saw and heard was: (A) vomit, and (B) it reminded them of F**k. No, I said, it sounds like Pook. Well then, one said, why don’t you just change it to Pook? And so I did.

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