Thursday, September 23, 2010
What would you name these two characters? Tom and Harry? No, that's too common, not colorful and memorable enough. How about Darren and Dave? No, those names are too similar and readers might get confused if they were both in the same story. How about Leonardo and Alfred? What does that say about their ethnic background, their personalities?
When an author is creating new characters for a novel or story, picking names for those characters can be a difficult and delicate task.
For one thing, you don't want your readers getting confused about who is who. I use a simple tool to make sure that not too many of my characters have first names that start with "T" or last names that start with "P." For each book I write, I create and maintain a three column chart. The first column contains the 26 letters of the alphabet, the second contains the first names of my characters next to the letter of alphabet they start with, and the third contains the last names of my characters in the same row as their initial letter. I put ALL of the character names in this chart, even the walk-ons. I try to make sure that no more than two first names and two last names are in each letter row, and if possible, that one is a minor character name and one is a major character name or one is female and one is male. Also, I try to make sure they don't start with the same two letters, like Darren and Dave above. Or the last names of Smith and Smothers.
For my significant characters that will have major roles in the story, I work to pick names that match their ethnicity and location, age (Miriam for an older woman and Brittany for a younger one, for example), and personality. For ethnicity and location, I often use a phone book. My Claire Hanover gift basket designer mysteries have been set in Colorado Springs and Breckenridge, Colorado, and I have used phone books from those cities to pick names for my characters who live in them. I won't take a full name verbatim from the phone book, but will mix first and last names from different listings until I get a name that "feels right" for that character. For my Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures series, which is set in Salida, Colorado, I use a Salida phone book.
For personality matching, I will often look up the meaning of first names, especially, on the various baby naming websites to see if the name fits that character's personality. And people do attach emotional meanings to names. I remember playing the Barbie Queen of the Prom game when I was a girl. Everyone wanted to win a date with dreamy Ken and no one wanted one with creepy Poindexter! So a strong action-oriented male figure may have a short, clipped first name like Dirk, Brad, or Curt, while your computer nerd might be Peter, Ronald, or Chester.
Then there's the added complexity when someone wins a character name in one of my books from a mystery conference charity auction. I may find that after I assign their name to a minor character in one of my books that their first name or last name is too close to another character's name. So, I have to change that other character's name, too. Or, maybe the physical look or personality I've given that minor character doesn't match the auction winner's name. So, I'll change the character's hair color, or add glasses, or even change the ethnicity.
Names are important!
If you're a reader, please tell me your favorite fictional character names and why you like them. And if you're a writer, I'd love to know how you go about picking your character names!