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WHAT’S IN A NAME?

by | Feb 12, 2024 | Writing Process | 0 comments

WHY YOUR CHARACTERS’ NAMES MATTER.

My mother taught for over forty years. She taught in public elementary schools outside New York City, in the Pennsylvania suburbs, and in an elite private school in Princeton. She also directed a New Jersey cooperative nursery school, and when she retired, she volunteered in a third-grade classroom in San Diego. As you might expect, over decades in the classroom, she learned tens of thousands of names. When I became pregnant with my first child, I asked her what she thought I should name my baby. Boy, did she have an opinion! Her sage advice about names and some tips I’ve picked up during my writing journey are listed below.

  1. Choose a name that doesn’t confuse people. In 1994 and 1995, when my children were born, unisex names were all the rage. Names like Parker, James, and Blake were in trend. Also, celebrities were spelling their baby’s names in unique ways. Emmalee instead of Emily. Dafydd instead of David. Cydnee instead of Sydney. My mother encouraged me to steer clear of these fads. I believe this wisdom can also be applied when naming novel characters. Knowing a character’s gender from the get-go is key. Also, you don’t want readers to stumble on an unusual name spelling and get pulled out of your story.
  2. Consider choosing a name that adds meaning and depth to your story. My athletic

grandfather, whose name was William, desperately wanted a son. When my grandmother gave birth to her third daughter, they named her Wilhemina and called her Billie. This name choice tells me a lot. It tells me that Wilhemina was probably going to be their last child, that my grandfather hoped she’d be sporty, and that she’d probably be special to him. After all, she was his namesake. It also tells me that my Aunt Billie had expectations placed on her even before she crawled or uttered a word. Bottom line, don’t just pick the first name that pops into your head. Failing to select a name for a reason can be a missed opportunity. Names can add layers, depth, and meaning to your story and flesh out your characters.

  • Choose names that start with different letters. If you’re on a reality show, it’s cute when everyone has similar-sounding names like Kim, Kloe, Kourtney, Kris, Kendall, and Kylie, but it’s not so clever in a novel. Don’t annoy or confuse readers. Pick names that start with different letters.
  • Along the same vein, choose ethnic-sounding names that readers can pronounce. One of my critique group friends is writing a novel set in India. It makes total sense that his characters would have Indian names. But I’d advise selecting Amar over Abhimanyu. You don’t want readers to put down your novel because they’re tongue-tied.
  • Don’t select a name with a negative connotation or select a famous person’s name unless there’s a plot reason for doing so. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I wanted to name her Isabelle. My mother opposed the name on the grounds that Isabelle was one of Cinderella’s mean stepsisters. She claimed she would think of that spiteful stepsister whenever she heard the name. I’m pretty sure she was exaggerating, and I still love the name Isabelle, but it’s better to avoid names with negative connotations unless the choice is intentional and adds to the storyline. The same is true of giving your characters famous names like Elvis or Cher.  Avoid using them unless the name has meaning in your story.
  • Limit the number of names in your story to keep your readers from becoming overwhelmed. If you can avoid naming a minor character, don’t name them. If you can combine cut characters, do that, too.
  • Carefully name streets, towns, and buildings, not just characters. All names matter because they add texture to your story. When I lived in New Jersey, I took regular trips to my vacation home in Florida. I kept a notebook in my car and jotted down street and town names that spoke to me. I still use that list when writing fiction today.
  • Consider going against type or not. If your character is a cheerleader, you might go with the stereotype and name her Ashley, Brandi, or Tiffany. But if you want your cheerleader to be more memorable, you could call her Mildred, Irma, or Myrtle. It’s your call.
  • Research your characters’ names by googling them or by having Beta readers critique your novel. We think we recognize famous or embarrassing names, but this isn’t always the case. You don’t want your protagonist’s sweet kindergartener to have the same name as a famous porn star.
  • Consider naming characters after people in your life or not. My name is Mary, and both my grandmothers were named Mary. My grandmothers were flattered that my mother chose to give me their names. But not everyone’s going to like it if they open your novel and discover that you’ve given a character their name, especially if that character is flawed. I’ve named characters after people in my life because something about the characters reminds me of them. But I use the names as placeholders only. I change them before the final draft to avoid upsetting friends and relatives.

So, how much do names matter? According to my mother, they matter a lot in the classroom and in life. As far as novel writing goes, I contend that everything matters when you’re writing a novel—plot, setting, pacing, story arc, and names, too. Choose your names wisely.

FYI, my mother’s name was Joan Louise Fry Schwartz.

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