Some authors love naming their characters, but I’m not one of them. I always end up looking around the room in despair, wondering if I can get away with naming my protagonist “Lampy McCurtains”. But after many years of writing (and reading) I’ve learnt a few things about character names that will hopefully be useful to fellow writers.
There’s no such thing as “the perfect name”
No matter how much effort you put into naming a character, someone won’t like it. Maybe someone will take an instant dislike to your protagonist because she has the same name as their childhood bully. Maybe your sexy love interest will end up sharing a name with a reader’s grandpa. It’s inevitable, so don’t waste time stressing about it.
Names are great for showing a character’s background
In the real world, most of us don’t choose our names – they are given to us by our parents. Names can provide the reader with valuable clues about a character’s family, culture and, in many cases, their socio-economic background. If you live in the UK, for example, you probably don’t know many working-class men named “Hugo” or posh women called “Kelly”.
If a character is at odds with their family or background, names can be a rich source of comedy. For example, a buttoned-up, conservative character with hippy parents might be saddled with the name Moonbeam.
This conflict can also be explored in more serious ways. For example, in Zadie Smith’s novel NW, a black character changes her name from Keisha to Natalie as she struggles with her identity.
Readers use names to interpret a character’s personality
In real life, a person’s name bears no relation to her personality unless she has chosen it herself. But for some reason, readers generally expect a character’s name to reflect her personality and are unlikely to warm to someone called Eve L. Villainess. Consequently, there are plenty of things to consider when choosing a name.
Names with “hard” consonants such as D, K or X tend to have a “harder” sound. Consider names beginning with or containing these letters for a tough action hero or heroine. Softer consonants and vowels mean a softer sounding name, and names ending in the ee sound (Archie, Ellie, Lilly, etc.) are often perceived as “cute”.
It’s worth mentioning that character names are a minefield of gender-based bollocks (to use the scientific term). The more feminine a name is, the more you run the risk of a character being perceived as “soft”. This is particularly risky with male characters, as modern readers can still be shockingly intolerant of softness or femininity in men.
Problems with names (and how to avoid them)
It can be off-putting to readers if they don’t know how to pronounce a main character’s name. This can be a problem for writers who want to properly represent certain cultures in their work. To ensure the reader knows how to pronounce a name, you could always show another character mispronouncing it and being corrected.
Another common problem is when readers get characters mixed up because they have similar names. To avoid this, don’t give your characters names that begin with the same letter, or that sound similar (e.g. Holly and Polly).
It can also be a mistake to assume everyone has the same frame of reference you have when it comes to names. You might want to name a male character “Ariel” after the character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but be aware that many readers will be thinking of The Little Mermaid.
My Favourite Literary Names
Petra Slaymaker (A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale). Possibly the world’s coolest name.
Adrian Mole (the Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend). The perfect name for a geeky, well-meaning, not very clever intellectual.
Cassandra, Rose and Topaz Mortmain (I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith). What else would you call three bohemian women living in a castle in the 1930s?
Agatha Trunchbull (Matilda by Roald Dahl). A truly scary name for a truly scary lady.
What are your favourites?