The Name Game

Hi, SE Readers. Joan here today. One of my first posts for Story Empire was titled “What’s in a Name?” It was about the importance of selecting character names that matched age, ethnicity, gender, etc.

We writers are free to go outside the box so to speak, especially if you tend to be a bit of a rebel. (Hand raised.) But recently, I became aware of a couple of other problems with character names that might confuse the reader.

In my first novel, Unseen Motives, I switched several character names with as often as the weather changes in Texas.

I originally named my main character Debbie. But when I researched popular names for the year she was born, the name didn’t make the top 100 popular girl names for that period. While there was nothing wrong with the name Debbie, I decided to name the character Stephanie. I’m glad I did.

But then I had another problem. Four characters, one major and two minor all had names beginning with the letter S. Again, I did some switching—Scott became Matt, Sophie became Helen, and Sylvia became Pat.

I thought I’d learned my lesson, so by the time I began my third novel, I felt confident I wouldn’t make a similar mistake. Wrong. This time I selected the letter J. Yes, I had Jenny, Jason, Jeff, and Jill.

Thanks to a trusted critique partner who pointed this out, I was able to switch the names of two minor characters. Because I was more than half-way through the book, and Jason and Jenny played significant roles, I left their original names. I changed Jill to Susan and Jeff to Lance.

Okay, those names are okay. Right? Not necessarily. Lance is in only one scene, but it’s with the main male character, Vince. See the similarity? When Lance and Vince exchanged dialogue, even I became confused. Yes, Lance got a new name.

Here’s another potential problem with character names. Two other writers and I were discussing character names one evening. I had already begun brainstorming names for a new series I plan to write. I had Nikki, Tami, Sydney, and McKenzie.

See the pattern? I learned I’m fond of “e” names. I have a few in my upcoming release but chose not to change them since I was far into the book when I made this discovery.

One last thing about character names. I recommend keeping a list of names you’ve used. It’s easy to remember the names of your main characters, maybe not so easy for minor ones. Keeping a list helps an author not to repeat those names for characters in future books. The hero in your current release might not appeal to readers when you’ve had a villain by the same name in another book.

Let’s hear from you. Do you have specific ways of choosing character names? Any habits such as those I’ve described? Please share in the comments.

38 thoughts on “The Name Game

  1. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

  2. Sorry I’m late to the party, but I’m only now getting a chance to come read this post. Anyway, names are a bit of an obsession for me, so I’ve always put a lot of thought in to the names I use, and had a name list document ever since I started publishing. Some of my characters got renamed when I was rewriting old stories for publication because the names I picked originally had been used in other stories. It hadn’t mattered when the stories were just for me, but I figured it did after publication. If I’m using names that are quite similar – like names starting with the same letters, or with similar sounds – I’ve done it on purpose.

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    • Keeping a list is a wise thing to do. And if using similar names is done on purpose, I see no problem with that unless it becomes too many similar names causes confusion for the reader.

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  3. I guess I’m lucky with what I’ve written so far; my character names are as important to them as their physical descriptions so I’ve had to think long and hard about them. Their names are usually some deeply thought out metaphor related to their “job” or role in the story. Plus, I write in either historical or fantasy worlds so I’m forced to choose “Eunice” or “Ruby” etc… makes it a lot easier 🙂

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  4. Hi Joan!
    Great advice, as usual!
    When it comes to names I’m completely lost. Not only I risk ending up with similar names, most of the times I have no idea which names to choose. I often use names from books or movies until I come up with something better.
    And surnames… Gosh, I’m even worse with them. Especially when writing science fiction or fantasy, when there isn’t a geographical and/or time reference, I’m completely lost. Often I resort to using common words written in reverse.

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    • For sci-fi or fantasy, I like the idea of using words written in reverse. There’s a small town nearby called Reklaw. The name came about because of some family named Walker who was trying to hide from the past and reversed their name. There are some great name generator sites out there when we do get stumped.

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  5. I like to pick a popular name from the year the were born too. I’ve done the same thing get hooked on a first letter for several names. I make several changes before I’m done. Great post.

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    • I think we do it unconsciously. At least I do. Of course, I don’t plot my entire story and new characters sometimes spring up unexpectantly. At least it’s easy to change names.

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  6. I like to honor people in my life who mean a lot to me. Some minor characters carry the names of doctors who have been instramental in me carrying on. Others are friends etc. The villian names I pull from the envireonment.

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  7. Great post, Joan. I know this is going to sound a little crazy, but names come to me intuitively. Like for instance, Luke Stone. I didn’t even give it a thought. It just came out of my mouth in a conversation. However, that being said, I do have to be careful about making sure the characters’ names don’t start or end the same. It is just too confusing for the reader. Keeping a list definitely helps with that. Thanks for bringing up this subject!! Have an awesome day!

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  8. I’m definitely going to have to keep a list – I have some minor characters whose names I don’t remember. There’s a series I read where about 80% of the author’s character names (and it’s an intentional choice, but I’m not sure why) start with the letter ‘A’. Many of the characters also share the same name, or a close version of it, and it gets really confusing at times. I had no idea how many names began with ‘A’, lol.

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    • I had a minor character that appeared in two books and is mentioned once in my upcoming release. But the other day, I couldn’t remember his name. Probably because he’s the type of person I’d want to forget. I agree that similar names can be confusing for the reader.

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  9. I usually run into a problem when I have a minor character assume larger rolls. In A Cold Tomorrow I had Shawn and Suzanne, who went onto larger rolls in A Desolate Hour and there I was with two “S” names. Worse, I had Jillian Cley already established in Cusp of Night, when her sister Madison suddenly appeared in End of Day. She was supposed to be a minor character, but instead assumed the female lead in Eventide. I sometimes got confused with Jillian and Madison.

    I would really love to make the time to create a spreadsheet of myncharacter names, so I don’t reuse them. I used to think that would never happen, but after ten books and two novellas, it’s amazing how easy it is to repeat.

    As for similar sounding names, Tolkien drove me nuts with Sauron and Saruman. It took me forever to separate those two in my head!

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  10. Thanks for the heads-up. As a newer writer, I didn’t think about characters’ names piling up like that. I’ll definitely start keeping a list. To answer your question, whenever I hear a catchy name, I write it down for a future story.

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    • I recommend starting early. I’ve written three novels, a novella, and published four short-stories. For the life of me, I can’t remember all the character names.

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  11. I keep a list of names I like and I don’t know why. Every time I need to name a character, none of the names on my list ever appeal to me. Then begins the massive hunt followed by several changes. It’s a nightmare.

    Now that my backlist is growing, I think I should keep a list of all the names I’ve used. I think I already went through my favorite names because I keep trying to call new characters by already-used names. That’s a good ides, Joan.

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  12. This is so true. I probably still need to change a character name in Serang, just because it starts with S. You know me, I now have a living document with interesting names I’ve run across just so I have something handy. I also try to avoid “special snowflake” kind of names too. I use them when it suits the story, but that isn’t very often. Lizzie St. Laurent might be one example.

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  13. I’ve done this before and it gets tough when you reach double digit characters. I don’t worry too much about third tier minors, but I try my best to not go above two with the higher ranks. Can’t always be successful since some names stick so well characters. Still, this is a reason I do planning and bios first. I use various baby name sites for meanings and variations. It helps give me a bigger name pool than what’s in my head.

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