Writing Tip #11 Choosing Character Names

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This is the eleventh of 12 posts for writers who are planning to self-publish using the great services now available to the amateur writer, such as Smashwords, Amazon KDP, CreateSpace etc.

11. How to Choose Character Names

Choosing names for your characters can be difficult. The best approach seems to be to keep a list of your character (first and second) names and make sure they start with different letters of the alphabet. Think of Holmes, Watson, Lestrade and Moriarty.

There’s more to it than that, though. It seems readers have difficulty distinguishing similar names: Melissa and Matilda, for example, are too similar, since they both start with the letter ‘M’, both end in ‘a’ and are similar in length.

I’m told that a reader could easily confuse Erika and Heiki because of the ‘ik’ in the middle, I suppose, even though they start with different letters.

Mary Louisa Locke has an interesting and helpful article on the subject here. 

Scrivener includes a writers’ tool to generate names. The tool allows selection of the ethnic origin of the first and second names. This is very helpful, and I use it a lot.

The first draft of my detective thriller, St Patrick’s Day Special, contained lots of Irish names which I thought were sufficiently dissimilar, but my editor pointed out that too many of them ended in the letter ‘n’. Names like Finnegan, Gilligan, Flanagan, even Allen would confuse the reader, especially as my main character was called DI Ben Jordan. It’s quiet amazing how many Irish names end in the letter ‘n’, and if you count the number of Irish names that include that letter anywhere (like Toner, Byrne, Norris etc.) you get a huge list. A smaller list, but equally confusing for the reader, is the list of names ending in ‘y’: O’Flaherty, Flatley, Cudihy, O’Malley, and so on.  English names ending in ‘r’ must be legion. Think of Miller, Baker, Archer, Fletcher, and so on.

I took a quick look through the Dublin telephone book for names ending in ‘n’. These I picked out from the ‘Bs’

Bacon, Baldwin, Banahan, Bannon, Bannigan, Behan, Belton, Bohan, Bowden, Boylan, Bracken, Branagan, Brannigan, Breen, Brennan, Breslin, Brown, Bruen, Buchanan

Of course lots of Irish names start with O’ like O’Reilly, O’Higgins, O’Bama and so on, and many start with Mac or Mc.

While writing my WW2 novels, The Black Orchestra and its sequel it was important to be able to distinguish German names from the 1940s that would have been recognizably Jewish. This is a tricky area. Google provided a selection of web sites that were helpful; none that I could recommend, though.

In early drafts, while choosing (both first and second) names for characters, I like to keep them uniquely identifiable, so that I can use the Search/Replace_All function to change them at a stroke if I need to. An example: Suppose your working name for a character is Sam Small. If, prior to publication, you decide to change this name to John Carpenter, and use Find/Replace_All to change all occurrences of Sam to John, and Small to Carpenter. Your word processor will transform words like ‘sample’ into ‘johnple’ and ‘same’ to ‘johne’. Obviously, changing ‘Small’ to ‘Carpenter’ everywhere is going to produce a lot of unwanted changes to the text, too.

The simple way out of these problems is to call your character Sam* Small* right from day 1. The asterisks make the names unique and Find/Replace_All will work like a charm. If you use the asterisk for nothing else, then their final removal is a simple matter.

It’s at times like these that I wish I had a small spark of the genius of Charles Dickens. His character names are so inventive, and many have entered the English Language. Here’s a few of them, mainly from this web site

Skimpole, Sloppy, Ebenezer Scrooge, Bumble, Sweedlepipe, Pumblechook, Pickwick, Wopsle, Polly Toodle, Wackford Squeers, Honeythunder, Tulkinghorn, Lady Dedlock, Captain Hawden, Oliver Twist, Silas Wegg, Boffin, Dick Swiveller, Smike, Uriah Heep, Wickfield, Sowerberry, Podsnap, Lucretia Tox, Sophia Wackles, and, of course, Bullseye the dog.

One more tip: If you are planning to seek representation from a literary agent, avoid names that end in ‘ly’. The agents have a fatwa on adverbs, and I suspect that they search submissions looking for words containing ‘ly’. My second thriller is called Find Emily. It contains 768 words ending in ‘ly’, but 227 of these are ‘Emily’.

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