This Business of Writing

15 Tips for Character Names in Novels

In General Information, How-to's, The Craft of Writing on April 6, 2010 at 7:43 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

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Here’s an interesting tidbit I picked up at a writers’ conference some years ago. The most important word in our language is your first name. The second most important word, some say is, “free,” though I believe it’s, “no.” Regardless, think of how you feel when you meet someone for the second time and they say, “Oh! Hi, uh, you. Nice to see, uh, you again.” Now, how might you feel if they insert your name into that same greeting? “Oh! Hi, Patrick. Nice to see you again.” Our names carry so much power within them, and so to do the names of your novel’s characters.

Names are as important as any other word in your novel for they can bind your reader to the character and the story. With that in mind, here are some tips to assist you with your character names.

Serendipity is your friend. If a name works, well, it works. Trust your intuition.

If you’d like, you can name your characters for what they represent. “Butch” the butcher? Maybe, but be smart about it and don’t overdo.

Find a book of names and consider the symbolism within the name. Though I hope I never meet the nun named Chastity.

It’s probably best to use one or two syllables for a man’s name. On occasion, woman can get away with more. Generally, it’s best to keep them simple. Why? Because nobody wants to keep reading names like Bilbonicofillia.

You might want to use only one exotic name per novel, if that. They get real weird real fast.

Try to find names that roll off the tongue.

You might consider a character’s name a snapshot of their personality or possibly even their purpose within your novel. For example, you might not name your murderer Sally Jones but Sal “The Blade” Jones might work just fine.

Remember there were no surnames prior to the 12th Century. After that, people were named for their place of birth. Remember Joan of Arc or Leonardo de Vinci – of Venice? After too many women with the name Joan inhabited Arc, they began to name people after their professions, which is the point of origin for many contemporary surnames. Some examples include Smith from black or white smithing, Felling after a tree cutter and even my name, Schulze, which means cop or judge in medieval German.

Insure your character’s name is appropriate for your setting, the time and place of your story. There are ample websites to help you here. In my case, I write historical fiction set in the mid 19th century. So, I walk Civil War cemeteries and take names from the headstones. Talk about accuracy! I combine the first name from one marker and the last from another. Works every time. By the way, here’s a site that’ll help. www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames.

I recommend you stay away from cute. How many Bambi’s have you really met?

Consider if you might shy away from character names with similar letters and spellings. If two characters have similar names, Tom and Thom, for example, readers can lose track quite easily.

Avoid Alliteration. At least use it with care. It too, can have a negative effect on readers. Can it work? Of course. Bilbo Baggins is a great example.

Don’t name fictional characters after famous people. Tom and Jerry will simply give your readers the wrong hook.

You might wish to stay away from names that end in “s.” Erasmus’s sour samples… See my point?

Here’s one you’ll thank me for one day. Keep a file of names you run across that strike you.

How can you be sure if you’ve chosen the correct name for a character? You might try this. Say your character’s name as if you spoke to him first in jest, then anger and then as one in love. Does the name work in each of these situations? If so, you’ve most likely named them well.

Would you care to tell us how you choose your characters’ names? I’ll share them with everyone if you pass them along.

Whether you do or not, I hope by now you know I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers”

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  1. Hello Patrick,

    your post was just what I needed. Thanks so much. (I’m still working on the names, but, as you suggested, I’ve started keeping a list of keepers!)

  2. I like to name my characters after reading baby naming books. Most times there will be one or two names that “jump” out at me and scream for me to tell their story.

    I think your idea for visiting cemeteries is a great one too! They are full of stories and intriguing ideas.

    • Good afternoon, Ali,

      Baby name books are a great source of character names. I understand about how they “jump” out at you, too. Sometimes it seems characters control us more than we control them, doesn’t it?
      Cemeteries are my favorite place for names. Talk about stories jumping up to you!

      By the way, I do appreciate your commenting.

      Patrick

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