Fiction writing takes an incredible amount of creativity, for everything from world building in sci-fi to getting that heart-pounding chase scene just right in action-adventure. But the success of any story hinges on the characters.
They have to be believable and embody the role perfectly for readers to suspend disbelief and lose themselves in the story. And part of building the perfect character for a role is choosing the right name.
You can probably find chapters, if not whole books, on naming your characters, but in the end it’s a personal decision for each author.
Here are a few tips to consider, though, when naming the people who populate your stories.
Hey, that’s my mom’s name!
Remember, if you choose a common name like Sue or George, that is likely the name of some of your readers or—worse—someone they know. Though common names are comfortable for your readers and easily pronounced, there are two main problems with using a common name.
First, while your reader will eventually settle in and disassociate the name with the person they know—especially if your writing is high quality—it will take them longer to relax and immerse themselves in the story. Generally, as an author, you want to do everything in your power to capture and hold your reader’s attention.
The second problem is more of an issue for writers who include controversial or emotionally charged scenes. Imagine reading about a beloved grandparent gruesomely chopping up innocent victims or a parent in a graphic sex scene.
How do you pronounce that again?
Making up a name from scratch is always a great option—and a popular one judging by the trends in baby names in our culture today. Just make sure your reader knows how to pronounce it.
Growing up, I loved Madeleine L’Engle’s books, but one of her characters’ name always gave me fits. How do you pronounce Dennys? Is it Denn-eez or Dennis? I’m sure it was obvious to the author, but I tripped over it again and again when a quick explanation would have smoothed everything out without disrupting the story.
I’m currently reading my way through Jessie Mihalik’s Consortium Rebellion series. In two of the novels, she includes a character named Aoife.
Now, how in the world do you even begin to pronounce that? Never fear, though, because in less than one complete sentence in each book, Mihalik clears everything up for the readers and the story goes on without a hiccup.
But she does take the time and space to explain that it’s pronounced Ee-fa, and she does it at a natural point and in a logical manner in each book.
Robert, Bob, Bobby, Rob, Robby, Bert, Bertie
Good writing causes the words to fade away so that all that’s left is the story.
Also, be intentional about when you use each name. Some authors jump randomly from nickname to nickname because they feel like using the character’s name over and over gets repetitive.
And they’re right. But changing the character’s name isn’t the answer.
That doesn’t mean you can never use nicknames for a character. If you’re intentional about how and why. Sometimes, a nickname is necessary for a particular tone, circumstance, or character voice.
For example, a character’s lover might use a particular nickname. Or their brother might use another. The nickname sets the tone for a scene or a relationship.
I thought Betty was her sister. No, that’s Beth. Betty’s her best friend.
Remember that your readers haven’t been living and breathing your story for months, writing and rewriting and imagining scenes and scenarios.
Names that look or sound alike can often get twisted up in a reader’s mind, especially if those characters aren’t in every scene. And it’s exhausting to try to keep a mental tally of who’s who, especially in longer works like novels. Make it easy on your readers and go for distinct names.
Rebecca has a passion for helping you fill the world with great literature and making sure said literature doesn't get passed over for the lack of a little editing.