Bad Character Names Can Spoil Your BookHave you ever been intrigued by a good storyline or hooked by a good book description, only to be knocked out of the story by badly named characters? I know I have. Esmeralda, Troy, Sebastian, Anastasia, Dirk and Xavier may sound good to you in your warm writing room, but if your story is set in backwoods America, you’ve missed the mark completely. Before your readers begin to feel empathy towards your characters, the names have to fit properly. They have to feel right.
Let’s look at a few examples… I walked into his office, shiny surfaces everywhere. behind the glass desk sat a suit costing ten grand. the name on the door said ‘Dudley Penbright III’. I knew I was in for a heck of a meeting. “Sit down, Constantine,” he said, “your father, Troy,warned me you were coming.” he pressed a button on the desk. “Esmerelda? Bring me two coffees… strong, black.”
What kind of people do those names conjure? What do they look like in your imagination?
Character names are about the most important items in your arsenal, and if you don’t use them properly, you could weaken or destroy your story.
The Influencing CriteriaThere are four different conditions which influence your character’s names… Period, Geography, Genre, and Author’s Choice. If you do not adhere to these four tenets, whatever your skill level, you will fail as a writer.
PeriodicityBefore you name a character, you need to consider the time period in which your story is set. Unless you’re involving time-travel, there’s no point in calling someone Debby, Brian, Brittany or Winston in the 1500’s. Back in those days, in the English speaking world, most names were taken from the bible, and even the most obscure of prophets were invoked; Ezekiel, Jedidiah, Malachi, etc, etc. If in doubt, look on Google for “most popular names in 1500’s”. You’ll get plenty there to satisfy any novel.
GeographyThe geographical setting also plays a huge part in defining a character’s name. There are few David’s born in China, and as far as I know, an Eskimo has never been called Puff Daddy. Your characters must have names that fit them like a glove, almost becoming part of their persona. A Romanian thief would never sound convincing if you had named him Charlie Babbit.
GenreWriting in any particular genre will obviously influence your choice of names. Detective stories have very solid character names, names that conjure an image instantly. Science Fiction is another genre that begs for some form of deviation from the norm… BUT NOT TOO MUCH! Don’t forget the first time you read Zaphod Beeblebrox from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy!
Author’s ChoiceThis is a special one; the choice of a name can be a conscious move by a writer to impart special features, either physical or emotional to their character. By their name the reader is coerced into regarding the character in a specific way, designed and directed by the writer. Arthur Dent (Hitchhikers again) is a classic example. He’s portrayed as a dithering Englishman… look at how Douglas Adams manipulates the name; Arthur (old-fashioned English name) Dent (simple single syllable, then dent, referring to being inherently flawed). Classic.
Flying by the Seat of Your Pants... NOT advisedOne gem of advice; unless you’re in a different planet or universe, never make names up from scratch. An American Indian called Chakata, may sound okay to most ears, but if it means Crappy-Pants in Cherokee, you may find some bad reviews coming your way.
The SIX Keys to Success in Naming Your CharactersI have six methods I use for character’s names, all are equally legitimate, all have excellent qualities, and all will fit your characters perfectly, or add to the story. All these methods have merit when faced with doubt regarding naming a character.
Use Familiar Names; Names From Family or FriendsI’m Scottish/British, so it makes sense that when I’m writing either Scots characters or English/Welsh/Irish ones, that I dredge my memory for names from my childhood or family. In Opportunities, (a Scottish mission to Panama in 1698), I used some Christian names or surnames from my school; Hugh Wales, David Muirhead, some from my direct family, Henry Alisdair Harrison, Mungo Mair, James Ross, and a couple from my adult friends too, Andrew Rankine. I mix them up a bit, and get a nice selection of names.
Use Names From HistoryUsing the names of accepted historical figures is an acceptable way of imparting some gravitas to a character, without actually making it obvious; king’s names, dukes, and famous people ie, John Stuart, James Baptist, Rupert Wheeler, Howard Weeks, Henry Haliburton. They just sound more important than the average character.
Use Names from the Media; Movies, Television, MusicNot one I go to frequently, but it does bring interesting names to the fore. Once I was looking for something just a little off the wall for a character… frustrated, I tried actors/pop groups, and came up with Maximillian Schenk. (Actor Maximillian Schell, add rock band Michael Schenker) He never was a major character, but I wanted something out of the ordinary. It worked. There’s also nothing wrong with ‘borrowing’ a name or two from the professionals… If you’re looking for cowboy names, flick through a Louis L’Amour novel.
Use Names of Towns, Cities, Counties, Rivers, CountriesAgain, this is one to use sparingly, maybe just one character per book is enough, but if used correctly it does work well. Here’s a few to let you get the idea; Devon Standish, Jeremy London, Jason Glasgow , Walter Cheshire. And here’s a few real ones used already; Josey Wales, Jack London , Douglas Fairbanks, Rock Hudson, etc etc. Just look in Google maps, you’ll find a planet literally full of names.
Use Nicknames for Male CharactersAgain, not one to use frequently, but if you have a cast of six or more men sitting at a bar, most groups will have at least one nicknamed character in the group, especially men! These can be rude- ‘PussySniffer’, gross- ‘ShitForBrains’, geographically orientated- ‘Flanders’, or cute- ‘TeddyBear’. Men love nicknames, women, not so much. Adding a nickname to a surname is also allowed; example, take Anthony Bunter, but he hates the name Anthony, so is quite happy with his friends calling him Fatty Bunter. What image does that name conjure? You've given Anthony a whole backstory, just with a nickname.
Need Authentic Foreign Names? Look No Further… Help is at Hand!Thanks to this article, foreign names, such a huge bugbear of many writers, are now easy as pie! Every country in the world has an official soccer team. Most now have women’s teams too. These teams are all based on players having been BORN in that country. It’s a veritable GOLDMINE of perfect foreign names, endemic to that country! To find these, go to Wikipedia, the newspaper or the TV, and look at foreign soccer teams… YES, FOREIGN SOCCER TEAMS, (male or female) for the nationality of the character in your story. Mix the names, you get huge great results, and no clichéd ones either… these are the real heroes of a particular country, let’s take some examples, derived from this method; (Russian)- Ivan Vyhovski, (Romanian)- Tomas Lucescu, (Scottish)- Ally McLeish, (Italian)- Roberto Schilachi. All great names, all very solid characters, perhaps the names already inspire your mind to make a physical description.
MIXING IT ALL UP NOW!Mix and Match All of the Above to Find Your Dream Team. Take the six categories above and let it be a guide. Find your own personal route to good character names. Mix and match, have nicknames and real ones. There’s no right way to do it, but perhaps you’ve now got more ideas to whet your appetite. You are now armed with all you need to successfully name your characters…
Let’s wrap this up with a list of six fictional hit-men, all sitting in a bar, (one Scot, one German, one American, one Russian, one Romanian, and an Englishman, quite a mix) discussing their next job. Getting the six names believable, and have them easy on the tongue is difficult. The first list is the names you may have chosen BEFORE reading this article… Hamish MacDougal, Franz Muller, Brad Dangerman, Vladimir Adamov, Conrad Petersen, and Johnny Beckham. A good bunch of characters, but clichéd as hell, and boring; no backstories there.
Now AFTER reading this blog we can do much better… Mousey Fairbairn, Ernst Baumann, Sheepdip, Dmitri Dulayev, Alexandru Gunesch, and Billy Nile. Man, I can see them in my mind already. they have names begging for a story; each one!
Try the above method; write a list of characters from various countries. See how easy it is now, with no more agonizing! What would your list of hitmen be? Pick another six countries, and change the hitmen into hit-girls!