I’ve been looking at books I’ve written over the years, and I’ve discovered I either have a very limited “name” vocabulary or I simply like certain names. Carl keeps showing up in my books. No, he’s not the same person. He’s never been a hero. (At least not as far as I can remember, and the memory is going.) And he’s never been a villain.

I also like the name Cody. Cody was a secondary character in one book and the hero in another. Again, just the name, not the same person. I like Shannon, too. Maybe because I have a niece named Shannon.

I remember with one book I was going to use the name Drew for the hero. A friend had a preschooler named Drew, and I thought it was a neat name. Drew only lasted for three chapters before I realized every time I typed that name, I thought of a little boy, not a grown, masculine man. So Drew became Parker in that story. (Drew did show up in another story, but that Drew was a drunken boor.)

The names we give our characters can have a strong influence on how we see them. I remember reading that names that had a harsh sound worked best for men we wanted to describe as strong, masculine, and heroic: Drake, Kurt, Parker, Jake, and so on. “Softer” names worked better as secondary character. Robert might be the hero while Bob might be a brother-in-law. Trevor might save the damsel in distress while Tim worked as a teller at the bank.

Elizabeth Sims wrote a good article on the 7 Rules for Picking Names for Fictional Characters Elizabeth Sims

Read her article, but simplified:
(1) Go to a baby naming book or something similar and see what the root meaning of the name is. Maris means “of the sea”
(2) Get your era right. Writers of historical fiction need to be careful not to use names that are too “modern.” Or, if they choose to use a name that wouldn’t be familiar at that time period, someone in the story certainly should comment on it. Names can hint at a time period. I’m working on a story idea where my main character is named Meadow Lark. I mentioned that to a friend, and she immediately said, “Were her parents Hippies?” (They were.)
(3) Read the name out loud. Have others say it. Are they reading it the way you meant it to sound?
(4) Don’t use names that are so similar that the reader might get confused. Was it Bonnie who owned the house or Bella or Beullah?
(5) Sometimes using the same initial for first and last name can give the name a musical sound and make it easy to remember. Or a name can amuse. I used to visit Dr. Bender, a chiropractor
(6) Make sure you’re not using the name of a person that might actually think it’s about him/her. Sometimes if a name sounds really familiar, it might be because you’ve heard it. If you think so, vary the name slightly.
(7) If you’re writing about a certain nationality, make sure the names you’re using would be correct for that nationality or the area of the country the family came from. If it’s different from what is normal, explain why.

As a writer, we can’t predict how a reader might react to a name, but I’ve found my reaction to a name is important for me as I write a story. The case with “Drew” proved that to me. However, I am going to have to come up with some new names for characters, especially my secondary characters. Carl is getting tired of showing up in all of my books.

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18 Responses to Names

  1. Oh, so true! I’ve changed names at times when I was already a third of the way into a book because it just wasn’t working for me. Hardest thing is picking female names for historical books because some of the most common ones, like Ethel and Mildred etc. sound so corny today and makes readers picture someone old and stout. I obviously love “Jake” and “Zeke”. Those one-syllable names just seem to fit a hunky hero. Those names and Caleb constantly want me to use them, but the heroes I used them for are so prominent in my mind and to my readers that I can’t use them in other books. Right now I’m trying hard to find just the right name for a “secret” character in my fourth “Jake” book. The name is very important. Once I settle on a name, that character, male or female, “comes alive” for me.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I have the same love of Caleb, but the name is different enough that I don’t use it without thinking. And you’re so right. Until you find the correct name, the character doesn’t come alive.

  2. I have 45 first cousins, names enough for a lifetime of writing and I get their faces, etc. in mind.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Rohn, if I use someone’s name that I know, they do get in my mind and that often messes up my image of the character. Also, I only have one male cousin. I think readers would get tired of all of my heroes being named Mark.

  3. Naming characters often proves difficult for me and I find myself changing names partway through a book. I agree that heroes need masculine sounding names and using the same first letters or similar sounding names for characters confuses readers.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Jacqueline, it sounds like several of us have changed a characters name part way into writing the story. I’m glad to hear I’m not alone in doing this. And it really bothers me when a writer uses several names that are similar.

  4. Anne Stone says:

    Hi Maris,
    Another great blog article. Good advice.

    In the manuscript I just completed my beta reader was confused when I introduced a secondary character with a surname beginning with the same letter as my hero’s surname . I didn’t think it was a problem but since the secondary character’s name was completely unimportant I switched it to Smith. šŸ™‚ Also, you might get a kick out of this — my landlord in Alma was named Roy Roach. Thought I might use that someday.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Anne, I love that name. He could be a bug collector. Or a bug exterminator. Actually, you should change his first name. Maybe Rick Roach. Ray Roach. I loved how J.K. Rowlings used names for her characters that also gave a sense of their character.

  5. I try to be careful about naming characters. I do use a baby book, and also check the phone book. I try to avoid having characters named from only one ethnic group. My weak spot is choosing names that all begin with the same letter. I like certain names, just as you do, and have to be careful not to give them away in series books–I can only have one recurring character named Mindy (I almost had three). Very good post.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thank you, Susan. More than once I’ve had to go back into a draft of a story and change the names of some of the secondary characters so I didn’t have several sounding the same.

  6. Great topic, Maris. Choosing a character’s name is always a challenge for me and something I need to have in place right from the beginning. I often use a Baby Name book, too. When I know their name, I do a detailed character sketch. By the time that’s finished, the character has become real in my mind and it’s much easier to write their story.

  7. Lucy Kubash says:

    I still have the two old baby name books I bought years ago, and they still come in handy. I have more trouble with settling on last names for my characters, although most of my heroes seem to have Mc at the beginning of their last names: McGarren, McDonough, McCord, and currently, McBride. I did change the name of the heroine halfway through the book I’m working on, and I was glad for the Search and Replace feature on Word. Love the Carl comment. That’s funny how he keeps showing up. Maybe he wants his own story?

  8. Melissa Keir says:

    Names are so important for a character and yet they are often my hardest part to decide on. Someone made a joke that I had a main hero with the first name Johnson. Obviously they were thinking about a part of the body’s nickname. I hate when characters’ names are too similar. I can’t remember them then and it makes the reading challenging.

  9. Diane Burton says:

    Great post, Maris. When my husband saw three baby names books on my desk, he asked if I was trying to tell him something. Yeah, a real miracle. LOL I love the name Maggie for a heroine but not short for Margaret (which has a bad connotation in my family). My character doesn’t come alive until I have the right name.