Category Archive: Novels

Win the name game in style: 11 ways to dream up an original, effective character name.

Good Character Names Part Three: Methods 7 to 11

Think of dynamite names for your characters and win the battle for characterization at the reader’s first glimpse of you character. Your hero’s essential traits will hit readers in the face before she even opens her mouth.

This is the third and final part of a series on creating terrific names for your characters, whether you write novels, short stories, screenplays or any other genre. The series presents this topic in three bite-sized chunks. For lots more information and tips, have look at Parts One and Two as well.

So let’s make haste, and finish up our list of ways to create winning names:

7. Pay attention to the time period, race, nationality and other background factors.

Producers chose the name “Mr. Sulu” because they thought in sounded cool and Japanese. When the show aired in Japan, his name was changed to a real Japanese name. The character is a great success, and was named in a previous era. If you make up an imaginary name to describe someone from a non-imaginary place, be careful or you will face criticism in our day and age.

If you are looking for a realistic name, keep the real world in mind. Names come into fashion and go out again. Many writers choose a name that is popular now, and not when the character was born.  See our website resources post for a way to find this information.  http://goldenkeyscribes.com/web/2015/06/09/babyname-com/ Author Elizabeth Sims used the name Gary Kwan for a Japanese-American criminal defense attorney, but it is a Chinese name.

Some steps to take when choosing a realistic name: 

 8. Avoid similar names to prevent confusion

The Dynamic Duo. Both named after things that fly. Bats are dark and scary, robins are small and cute. The same, but different. This is a great example of choosing contrasting, but somehow similar names for partners.

Avoid names of the same gender that start with the same letter in the same book. For example, don’t call one boy Jimmy and the other Jack.

In the same vein, use names of differing length and syllable stress: Debby and Barbara and Annette, Dax and Roberto.

One last point in this section: Owing to the sort of society that we live in, the problem disappears across gender lines. If you want to call one twin Dora and the other Dave, then go ahead. We can well believe that parents might do this, and most people will never mix them up across the gender barrier. The similarity will invite us to compare them, but not confuse them. They might have similar, or contrasting character traits and the similar names would invite us to think about that.

9. Create a duo whose names match in some way

As with the other methods, use this approach only if it suits your story. Statistically, more people names Joseph marry women named Mary than you would expect, just as more Adams marry women named Eve.

This could be a simple as having two characters starting with the same letter, but usually if they are of different genders, otherwise readers will confuse them.

Partner names can be similar:

Although usually having similar names for different characters may confuse readers, this very quality may be a plus for partners.

Rhyming names:

  • Heckle & Jeckle
  • Cagney & Lacey

Alliterative names:

  • Beauty and the Beast: not their real names, but a good example of alliteration with different genders.
  • Mickey and Minnie Mouse
  • Cheech & Chong
  • Beavis and Butt-head: Here we have some alliterative names of the same gender, but they are duo, inseparable, and we may wish to emphasize their similar qualities.

Very similar names create a comic effect. There even used to be a cartoon show call Ed, Edd and Eddy.

Different but complementary: The name of your duo may also boast some other similarity of sound. Mulder & Scully have the same vowel in the first syllable, and create a subtly effect of similarity, as though they belonged together.

Or the names may contrast:

  • Lady & the Tramp: The names of this classic pair contrast in meaning – one rich and one poor – in addition to sounding rather different. More about them later.
  • Starsky and Hutch, Tango and Cash or Jekyll and Hyde: Here the first name has two syllables, and the and short second. Cory and Shawn and Lady and the Tramp also fit here.

Methods of naming can be combined. The names Tango and Cash, both indicate on the one hand a wild and fast lifestyle. On the other hand, it was Tango who had more cash, not his partner Cash, who was broke. This is a great example of irony in naming, or an inaptronym. Read more about inaptronyms in Part Two.

Or names may recall famous brands (or places or personages or whatever):

  • Chip & Dale
  • Statler & Waldorf
  • Calvin & Hobbes

Be careful to avoid trademark  infringement, though. Your name should be different enough to stand on its own.

So go ahead. Name your characters Ben and Jerry, if that suits the tone of your work.

You may say that some names just “sound good,” but if you look closer and analyze, you can see the hidden reason and employ it in your own character names.

 

Calvin & Hobbes: two great philosophers for the modern era. These names play the syllable game very well, and also make reference to historical personages.

10. Avoid real names and names of famous people

Obviously, you will want to avoid lawsuits. Authors even avoid giving any middle name to a murderous character, to limit the number of people who have the exact same name, and who might be offended or see a chance to get a few bucks.

11. Make your names easy to pronounce, even if they appear in science fiction, fantasy or foreign settings.

I’m sure real aliens have names that are impossible to pronounce, but readers will want to remember them and be able to say the names of your fictional ones. If they can’t say them, they will skip them, and the character will seem less real without a name. Superman’s Mister Mxyzptlk was cute, and is a classic now, but unless you know you can pull off the gag (and it is a gag) then just don’t.

Think instead of great alien names in fiction. Spock. Gort. Klaatu. Na’vi. Kal-El.

And in fantasy: Aragorn. Frodo. Conan. Tarzan. Granny Weatherwax.

Each and every one of these names immediately calls certain appropriate characteristics to mind, and fits in perfectly to the milieu created by the author.

The Gorn. A good character name because it’s short but sweet, and definitely not from around here. It is a species name, like the Vulcans, another great name, like a glaciered, sleeping volcano, dormant and cool, but with heat and power underneath.

Don’t think that the name types I have enumerated above are somehow unusual or just not done. My problem in writing this post, I assure you, was what names to leave out, not hunting up names to include. The only exception was finding inaptronyms. There don’t seem to be many of those. That indicates that this provides a good source of new names, names that are not overdone.

I can’t stand it, some of these are so delicious, I can’t stand to leave them out.  I’ll throw them out there:

  • Humbert Humbert, Lolita.
  • Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter
  • Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol
  • Lady Brett Ashley, The Sun Also Rises
  • Pip, Great Expectations
  • Ichabod Crane, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
  • Mustapha Mond, Brave New World
  • Jeeves, The Man with Two Left Feet and many others
  • Major Major Major Major and Milo Minderbender, Catch-22
    This breaks the rule about names that begin with the same letter, but let’s face it, when you usually call one character Major Major Major Major, and you other character Milo, people won’t get confused.
  • Stephen Daedalus and Mina Purefoy, Ulysses.
  • Henry Higgins and Ramona Quimby, Beezus and Ramona and others
  • Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy, very evocative names. They elicit severity, the sibilance of a snake, a sniping, critical or underhanded character, the dragon (Draco) and bad faith (Malfoy).
  • Lazarus Long, Time Enough for Love
    He lives forever.
  • Benny Profane, V
  • Bluebeard
  • Mrs. Malaprop, The Rivals
  • Dr. Beeper, Caddyshack
  • Hiro Protagonist, Snowcrash
  • Neo, Trinity, Rail, Beat, Motoko, Molly Millions, The Dixie Flatline and other Cyberpunk names.

The series M*A*S*H – as well as the novel it was based upon – burst with great character names. Besides “Radar” O’ Riley and Hawkeye Pierce, pictured, we could find Corporal Klinger, Lt. Colonel Donald Penobscott and Charles Emerson Winchester III, just to name a few. All of these names told us something important about the character and created a vivid image in our minds.

A last word:

Don’t choose your character name gratuitously. Give it some thought. Consider what impression you want to make with your character. Dramatic? Humorous? Fearsome? Timid? Would a subtle reference work better for your story, or an obvious one? Choose a method of naming. You’ll find many!

If you haven’t already, get the full story and lots of extra tip and info in Parts One and Two of the Series