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Win the name game in style: eleven smart ways to dream up original, effective character names.

Terrific Character Names Part One: Methods 1 to 3

Have great character names and get a head start on characterization from the firing of the starter’s gun. Your protagonists’ core characteristics will hit people before the first word or action of your stories, before readers even see their faces.

You’ll find myriad ways to achieve this. Let’s review a few of them.

1. Alliteration

Hannah Helene Horvath, Marnie Marie Michaels, Jessamyn “Jessa” Johansson and Shoshanna Shapiro, Girls. In many genres names don’t have to be totally realistic, just memorable.

Hannah Helene Horvath, Marnie Marie Michaels, Jessamyn “Jessa” Johansson and Shoshanna Shapiro, Girls. In many genres names don’t have to be totally realistic, just memorable.

Alliteration, when both first and last name start with the same letter, produces a strong, easy-to-remember name. People will remember your character longer, and you will have better brand recognition.

Consider:

  • Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey
  • Captain Kirk
  • Selina Suckling, from Emma
  • Mimi Mamoulian and Billy Battuta from The Satanic Verses
  • Tom Tulliver from The Mill on the Floss
  • Clark Kent, Peter Parker and many, many other comic book characters.
  • Binx Bolling, from The Moviegoer
  • Big Brother

Dick Dastardly. What a great name for a bad guy to send up the old melodramas! It is not only alliterative, but evocative, too. See Part Two for that. Dastardly and Mutley is also a great name pairing, as we will see in Part Three.

Alliteration provides your character with a snappy, unforgettable name. Memorable names increase brand recognition, and make your character spring to mind more often. After all, if you cannot remember the name of a character, you will think of that character less easily and less often.

Remember, you want a name that springs to mind. But bear in mind: too many alliterative names in one work can seem humorous or absurd. Another caveat: some genres use this more than other – just examine the list above. This device could set up expectations in people’s minds of what sort of story they are about to read. This effect declines if fewer characters have alliterative names, and if the alliterative character is not the main character.

Note from the above list that the alliterative moniker may not be just a proper name, but a nickname or title.

2. Avoid character names with an unintended negative association

References are great, but you should be aware of them an in control. Think about the implications of you name. Has a story with a similar name recently been published? Has the name been in the news in an unflattering context? For example, in the series The Greatest American Hero, creators named the protagonist Ralph Hinkley. But when a man with a similar name, John Hinckley Jr., shot then-president Ronald Reagan (a great name, by the way!), Producers changed it to Hanley.

Is your name shared by a figure in the news? Or another character from a classic or very recent book? Do you want that association?

Think of super character names and win the race on characterization at the starter’s gate. Your hero’s essential traits will strike readers before he utters a single word.

3. The so-called “meaningful monogram”

Furthermore, a good name can give insight into your character or foreshadow their fate. For example, tried and true (some would say overdone, but the trend lives to this day), giving your character the significant monogram JC invokes Jesus Christ and martyrdom. Sharp readers will expect them to meet a bad end for a greater cause. Examples number too many to list but here are a few. In these cases, the lives of the characters back up the Christ comparison.

Let’s just take a look:

  • Jim Conklin in The Red Badge of Courage
    He sacrifices his life like Christ, but apparently without any noble reason. An ironic Christ figure. One the other hand, his death may teach his friend, Henry, something about life, death, and manhood. The author, Stephen Crane, backs up the Christ comparison with his mention of a “whipping,” a “solemn ceremony,” and “bloody hands,” as well as an injury in his side (where Jesus was stabbed with a spear). Crane even describes the dying man as “a devotee of a mad religion.”
  • Jesse Custer in Preacher
    Appointed by God to take his place.
  • Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio
    His name itself is a euphemistic replacement for the oath “Jesus Christ!” in general parlance. He teaches Pinocchio morals and warns him against temptation. A mini “Christ the Teacher.”
  • John Connor in The Terminator
    Sent on a mission of salvation for the sake of all mankind, and gives up his life for the cause.
  • Computer-game hero JC Denton
    Also out to save the world, and he may actually be descended from Jesus. According to the theory, JC names subliminally get us to connect these characters with another, more famous person who had them..

Proviso:

But bear in mind that some people claim the whole JC thing has grown fusty and flat. Usually, though, critics feel this way, mostly about unpublished manuscripts, rather than readership after the work has seen the bookstore shelves. Regardless, once your work hits the market, no one will question it, just as in the examples above.

JB-JB-JB & JB

Furthermore, you character could have the initial of some other important personage: JFK, MLK, FDR. Or your JC character could be like Julius Caesar. Or resemble Jesus Christ, but be a woman. Joke initials like FU or WTF are always available for comedies or parodies.

Just look around and you will find other famous initials to borrow. The initials needn’t be those of a real person. Think also here of the many “JB” spies and action heroes:

  • Jason Bourne
  • Jack Bauer
  • Jack Bristow

To remind people of James Bond?

Finally, remember that whatever you do  with your names, have fun. Your readers will, too.

If you enjoyed this post, please have a look at Character Names: Parts Two and Three, coming soon,  for more effective ways to grab attention for your characters with a standout name.

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