Sunday, April 24

The importance of character names

Names - so important!  A poor choice can jar with a reader, and make characters less memorable and engaging. A name can also be a poor fit with the story or genre.

Kelvingrove Faces by Spikeyhelen
Putting a reader off

A bad choice of name can put a reader off.  And while it is possible to avoid names completely (and there are good examples in literature), it is a tricky one to pull off, especially for a longer piece.

As a reader, I am put off - perhaps unfairly, but there we go - by stories which have wall-to-wall anglo-saxon names.  I feel that as a poor reflection of modern society, it can detract from the believability of a story.  For the fantasy genre, I am put off as a reader if writers seem to have gone down the route of 'anything bizarre sounding'.  Tolkein's work had a system, and I'd like to see some rationale behind a name - perhaps a fantasy version of the sort of surname-endings that most real languages have.


A name should resonate with a reader, and link well with the character described.  It should be memorable, if not deliberately unconventional, and definitely not an overused choice (unless you specifically want your character to sound bland).

There is no reason that the right name should come to you straight away, any more than any other aspect of writing.  It may be easier to use an initial or description until the right name occurs.

Names such as J.D. Salinger's 'Holden Caulfield' are highly memorable
and can come to represent a type of individual. 
As in real life, it can be hard for a reader to remember a name.  Repetition when a character is first introduced can help a name to stick.  Avoid bringing in too many names at once, and avoid having very similar names (e.g. Jon and Joe) - when reading a text quickly, these are easily confused.

For realism, names should be a likely choice at the time your character was born - and not necessarily a popular name now or at the time of the narrative.

Useful tools

There are several useful tools internet tools.  This article provides an excellent list of automatic character name generation tools, including historical genres.

I sometimes make use of websites which list the meaning of names, such as this one. Some sites list them by nationality, which can also be useful.  I don't necessarily have a specific meaning in mind - but there may be meanings I'd like to avoid!

Sometimes just browsing these sites can be worthwhile.  When you find right name, it can really help with the development of a strong character.