Character Names Create Great Stories
I may be the world’s only novelist who’s also a name expert, which makes it doubly ironic that I was compelled to change my own character names.
But when Darren Star, creator of Sex & the City, made a television show based on my novel Younger, he changed the name of my heroine Alice to Liza and that of her young colleague Lindsay to Kelsey. Alice’s daughter’s name Diana was given to Alice’s boss, whereupon the daughter became the generationally-appropriate Caitlin.
The name change makes sense given that Older is the story of Liza writing a novel based on her year posing as a millennial called, yes, Younger. So the character based on the “real” Liza is named Alice, while the character based on Kelsey is called Lindsay.
I originally named the heroine of Younger Alice because of her Alice in Wonderland experience of living in the upside-down world of the younger generation. But Alice is an overused name both in literature and on the screen. There were notable characters with the name both in the movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and its TV adaptation Alice, and Alice Kramden was Ralph’s wisecracking wife in the classic Jackie Gleason Show.
The name Liza, on the other hand, is free of other strong character associations. It’s generationally ambiguous, reaching its apex in the mid-1970s, around the time my heroine would have been born. All in all, I have to confess, Liza is a more original and better character name than Alice.
Kelsey and Lindsay, meanwhile, are basically the same name. As a name for Hilary Duff’s character, Kelsey has the advantage, though, in peaking a bit later than Lindsay, in the early 1990s, perfect for someone who’s supposed to be in her late 20s. And Lindsay is perhaps too reminiscent of the actress Lindsay Lohan.
The best character names in realistic, contemporary works of fiction support the character’s background and personality rather than dominate it. If you’re writing a broader work – a fantasy book or period piece or graphic novel – you can have a lot more fun with character names. Albus Dumbledore and Daenerys Targaryen, Ebenezer Scrooge and Lyra Silvertongue are amazing character names created by J.K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin, Charles Dickens and Philip Pullman. Those names raise the bar even higher for authors looking to compete with Harry Potter or Game of Thrones.
But I’d think twice – or more like 100 times – before I’d give such unique names to realistic characters. A name that rare might work for a minor character, one whose remarkable name serves to telegraph a quality such as delicacy (Lilac) or strength (Stone). But for a character you want to feel like a three-dimensional human being, a more straightforward name usually works better.
Choosing the right straightforward name might be more rather than less difficult than finding something flamboyant for a world-class hero or villain. Some ideas for choosing character names that work:
Check popularity and usage.
When you begin a novel, it’s a good idea to create a timeline that shows when your characters were born, graduated, hit certain milestone ages compared with notable world and cultural events over the same time period. What names were most popular the year your character was born, what names were used more quietly, which might have been associated with major figures of the day, and which weren’t used at all?
If your characters are American, you can check the top names by decade or by year for specifics. Unless you want to make your character’s name part of the story, look for a name that’s neither too popular nor too unusual, one that’s neither rising nor falling dramatically.
Beware the generic.
Names like Jennifer, Michael, John, and Sarah convey an Everyman or Girl Next Door feeling. If that’s what you’re going for, fine, but that puts more pressure on the characters to prove themselves individuals deserving of our attention.
I named Liza’s twentysomething boyfriend in Younger Josh because it’s a name widely identified with millennial men and it’s also a pun for joke. Liza ironically can’t see beyond Josh’s age and doesn’t take him seriously until she gets to know him as an individual and realizes he’s extraordinarily engaged and empathetic.
Use names to support character, theme, and story.
You can use names in subtle ways to further the theme or deeper meaning of your work. For a book about motherhood, for instance, you might look for names that mean mother or child or that relate to famous mothers in art and history or that have been handed down through your fictional family. If you’re writing about a conflict between city and country life, contrast simple nature names and synthetic or sophisticated names. The more secret signals your characters’ names send, the richer your writing.
Send the right message.
Names can telegraph information about your characters’ class, religion, ethnic background, birthplace, family values. Be conscious of what signals you’re sending, make sure it’s accurate, and avoid choices that play into stereotypes.
Names can also give readers cues, often unconscious ones, about the character’s essence and their role in the story. The character Maggie in Younger and Older, for instance, is outspoken and earthy, traits embodied by her name. Maggie grew up as the oldest girl in an Irish and Italian family, and was named, I imagined, for her grandmother Margaret – not coincidentally my own mother’s name.
Give your characters names that contrast rather than match.
This advice reminds me of baby-naming advice like “Make sure the first name sounds good with your last name.” Duh. You probably don’t need to be told not to name your two main male characters Tim and Tom.
But I’d take that further and say don’t give two characters names that start with the same letter. Small signifiers like first initial or hairstyle can provide useful shorthand for keeping characters straight especially in the early pages of your work, for reader AND writer.
It can also simplify the process of outlining or blocking a rough draft of a scene. It’s much easier to refer to your own characters as A, M, and Z than A, A, and A. (And quicker to type than Arthur, Annabel, and Alex.)
Name your characters after people you know.
Naming characters after people you know can invest the character with the zaniness or strength of the original person. If the name belongs to someone you like and are in touch with, ask their permission first and be open about the character who will bear their name.
Don’t use the truly unique name of anyone you know for any character, and have some fun by assigning your friends’ names to characters who are very different from them. In my new novel, I’m using the name of a feminist Oxford professor for the sexy nanny, and the name of a surfer dude for a captain of industry.
This one comes with a caveat: If you’re writing a character based on the kid who bullied you in fifth grade, do not give that character the real bully’s name. Use their name for the creepy neighbor who turns out to be the murderer. And revel in the sweetness of your revenge.
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on September 8th, 2020 at 5:14 am
Interesting post! For me character names usually just “happen”. They come to me, and then I can’t shake them off, even if I decide on second thoughts I would have preferred to name that character something else. At times I have nevertheless had to rename a character whose initial name turns out to jar with their age group or background. A little bit of symbolism in a name can really contribute to the message that the character conveys, but in my experience this usually happens coincidentally, rather than intentionally.
on September 8th, 2020 at 7:55 am
When I’m teaching creative writing, I am always asked, “Where do you come up with your characters’ names?”
My answer is this: “I don’t name my characters. Their parents do.”
In the case of my novel The Mortal Part, the MC is Hugh Darragh Ross, born in Galashiels, Scotland in 1940. Hugh was a top ten name in Scotland that year, and was named for an Welsh grandfather. Jonathan, Hugh’s partner, is the quintessential Jewish boy of the Conservative synagogue of the 1950s; he was born in 1954 with his middle name, Craig, standing in for Hebrew name Chaim.
I did, however, name Jonathan’s ex-wife, Clelie, after a French-Canadian poet I knew in Burnaby, BC. (She gave her approval.) Clelie is a great name and suits her perfectly — but her parents named her Geraldine, after Geraldine Chaplin.
on September 8th, 2020 at 10:43 am
Both as a reader and a novelist I disagree with naming characters in a way that emphasizes their personalities or roles in the story. I enjoy a story best when the author is entirely off screen; when I pick up on a name tie in it yanks the author to the forefront of my mind and distracts from the story. Plus, it’s kind of cheesy. Parents don’t know what their child will be like or what’s in store for him or her at birth, so the “perfect” name is unlikely.
Exceptions; some fantasy novels or historical fiction where the character’s destiny is known early on, and when a character is named after someone or something meaningful to his or her parents. I think distinct (not weird, though) names help a character to jump off the page and keep them in my mind, but clever names just annoy me, even in the case of Harry Potter.
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