copyHave you ever read a book in which the characters’ names don’t seem to fit them? Or the names don’t stay in your mind, and you have to keep looking back to find out who it was who just appeared in a scene? When I write, characters’ names are as important as their physical descriptions and their personality quirks.

Almost everyone I know who has read the great Russian novels complains that she can’t keep track of the characters because the names keep changing. You’re not likely to refer to Levin as Constantin Dmitrich in the middle of your story, but don’t start calling John Smith Johnny or Smitty if you don’t want to lose your reader.

Charles Dickens came up with some truly appropriate names for his secondary characters, names so fitting that they are identified with their characteristics: Uriah Heep for the unctuous clerk in DAVID COPPERFIELD and Fagin, who trains the young pickpockets in OLIVER TWIST. But those names, like Jay Gatsby or Jane Eyre or John Galt, are so identified with their characters that they’re out of bounds for current writers.

When I develop names for my characters, I usually have an idea of the sound of the first name I want for the main characters: a hard sound, like a J, to begin the name or a soft sound, like an S. I don’t know where that first feeling comes from, but I do know I can’t write about a character unless he or she has a name. For the femme fatale in SO MANY REASONS TO DIE, I knew I needed a fanciful first name, so I came up with Miranda, and when it became known that she had changed her identity, her original name was the prosaic Margaret.

I usually consult a well-worn book on my writing bookshelf called THE LAST WORD ON FIRST NAMES. It’s a bit dated, but it covers most male and female names of the last hundred years and how dated–or not–they are. Of course it also tells which rock or movie stars have named their children with this or that name. For ethnic first names, I consult the internet, which provides a wide range of common and not-so-common names of whatever ethnicity I’m interested in.

For last names, unless something immediately comes to mind and seems to go well with the first name I’ve chosen, I look in the phone book. If I want a regional name and can’t come up with one, I go to the library and look in their collection of phone books from other areas. In my current book, I changed a location from Minneapolis (think Scandinavian names) to upstate New York (think English-Scottish). Writers can certainly make up last names or adjust any names they steal from the phone book.

One hazard to avoid is using names that sound alike in the same novel or story for two characters, unless that’s something you intended. Don’t, for example, have a Melinda and a Melinda or a Jason and a Jack. The similarity will confuse your reader. This is something I have to watch for, since I don’t know all the characters who will be in my book when I start to write. Minor characters who appear may get names that pop into my head, and those names may sound a lot like those of other characters.

Names can certainly be unique, but not so much so that the reader is thrown out of the story by the name. On the other hand, don’t name everyone John Smith or Jack Johnson. Just don’t get carried away with unusual names.

It’s okay to choose names that are not obvious to pronounce, but don’t get too elaborate. There may be different ways to say a name, and that’s all right. Just don’t make it something that bothers the reader every time she comes across it. No Wojciechowskis, for example. Or Sojkas, for that matter. Names like that throw the reader right out of the story.

And be careful about choosing names that seem to go together beautifully only to find they or something very like them have already been used by some movie star or rock singer. Readers will laugh at a murder mystery where the victim is named Brad Pitt or Emma Stone.

How, as writers, do you choose names and have you ever regretted a name you’ve chosen? And readers, do you find that names are usually appropriate and fit the character or do you stumble over names or feel they don’t fit the character?


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