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The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig Tags: Brian Klems, online editor blog.

Choosing a character name for your novel is as pressure-filled as picking a name for a baby. It has to suit the character’s personality, makes sense for the era and, most important, be super awesome (sorry friends, the awesome name of Brian A. Klems is already taken by this guy). Names like Harry Potter, Holden Caulfield and Stephanie Plum are memorable not just because of the amazing stories they navigate, but also because these names “fit” those characters so well. You need a name that “fits” your character too.

I stumbled upon these seven great rules for choosing character names offered up by popular mystery writer Elizabeth Sims (the Rita Farmer Mysteries). When developing characters—no matter what sort of characters you’re pursuing—heed common sense and consider each of these tips before choosing a name.

1. Check root meanings.

It’s better to call a character Caleb, which means “faithful” or “faithful dog,” than to overkill it by naming him Loyal or Goodman—unless you want that for comic/ironic purposes. Some readers will know the name’s root meaning, but those who don’t might sense it.

2. Get your era right.

If you need a name for an 18-year-old shopgirl in a corset store in 1930s Atlanta, you know enough not to choose Sierra or Courtney, unless such an unusual name is part of your story. Browse for names in the era you’re writing. A Depression-era shopgirl who needs a quick name could go by Myrtle or Jane; it will feel right to the reader. Small public libraries will often have decades’ worth of local high school yearbooks on the shelves. Those things are gold for finding name combinations from the proper era.

3. Speak them out loud.

Your novel might become an audiobook or an e-book with text-to-speech enabled. A perfectly good name on paper, such as Adam Messina, may sound unclear aloud: Adam Essina? Adah Messina?

4. Manage your crew appropriately.

Distinguish your large cast of characters by using different first initials, of course, and vary your number of syllables and places of emphasis. Grace Metalious (a great name right there) demonstrates this in her blockbuster Peyton Place, as do any of the successful epic writers like James Michener and Larry McMurtry.

5. Use alliterative initials.

Employ this strategy to call special attention to a character: Daniel Deronda, Bilbo Baggins, Ratso Rizzo, Severus Snape.

6. Think it through.

You might notice that in most crime fiction the murderer rarely has a middle name or initial. Why? Because the more you explicate the name, the more likely there’s a real person out there with it. And reading your story they might become upset and try to sue you or come after you some night with a bayonet.

7. Check ’em again.

When writing my novel The Actress, I needed a name for a Japanese-American criminal defense attorney, and the name Gary Kwan burst upon me. I loved the name and used it in the book. Only thing was, as soon as the thousands of copies of hardcovers were printed and shipped to stores, I heard from a reader who pointed out the simple fact that Kwan is a Chinese surname. I cursed loudly and decided: a) that I would ALWAYS check name origins, and b) that Gary Kwan had a Chinese grandfather who adopted a Japanese orphan who became Gary’s father. Or something like that.

Naming characters just right is a challenge, but give it some time and thought, and you’ll start to find the fun in it. Study the names great authors have come up with, let your mind loose to play, do your research, and above all, trust your ear.

And if worst comes to worst, here’s hoping you’re like Oates and lucky enough to just bump into your character in a dream—where you can ask him yourself.

************

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42 Responses to The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters

  1. Books for Older Teenagers says:

    Hi Brian,

    First off let me say congratulations on writing a great post!

    We all know how important names are in writing books. I have had this exact problem in a series that I’m in the process of writing at the moment. Being a Fantasy writer, I have to introduce the reader not only to plots and entire new worlds. I have to introduce the reader to unearthly characters with names that might not be off this world. Names that sound different however don’t sound that far fetched that they sound made up.

    In Fantasy writing, the power of the name provides insights into the character and their civilization. When researching names for my current Series, I researched Ancient Celtic names. By doing that, I got loads of ideas for unusual names that didn’t sound fake.

    A few pointers from my tick list:

    1. The name has to fit with the era as you have mentioned.
    2. Avoid what everyone else is doing; I always try to find something different from the trends.
    3. If I am using human characters, I always try and give them ordinary names. I hate reading and seeing a name that sounds tacky like Portia or Mercedes. I think that the writer is trying to be too hard to appeal to the younger crowd.
    4. When I have a name I get a friend to say them out loud to me, that way I can tell if it sounds correct.

    The correct name has the power to show the reader straight away if he/she has landed in another world, another time, the past, the present, the future in the first few pages. My advice is always to choose names wisely. Don’t put the reader of with a shabby unthought-of name. Entice them with a name that will hook them mind, body and soul.

    Great Post from Mary Melrose,

    Who is a writer living in a magical world where mythological beings and magic exists? I have an extraordinary imagination, which has taken me to places no ordinary mortal has been. Drop by and be blown away with my world. Like Twists, my books will twist your head off.

    http://mary-jane-melrose.weebly.com/marys-blog

  2. Books for Older Teenagers says:

    Hi Carol,

    First off let me say congratulations on writing a great post!

    We all know how important names are in writing books. I have had this exact problem in a series that I’m in the process of writing at the moment. Being a Fantasy writer, I have to introduce the reader not only to plots and entire new worlds. I have to introduce the reader to unearthly characters with names that might not be off this world. Names that sound different however don’t sound that far fetched that they sound made up.

    In Fantasy writing, the power of the name provides insights into the character and their civilization. When researching names for my current Series, I researched Ancient Celtic names. By doing that, I got loads of ideas for unusual names that didn’t sound fake.

    A few pointers from my tick list:

    1. The name has to fit with the era as you have mentioned.
    2. Avoid what everyone else is doing; I always try to find something different from the trends.
    3. If I am using human characters, I always try and give them ordinary names. I hate reading and seeing a name that sounds tacky like Portia or Mercedes. I think that the writer is trying to be too hard to appeal to the younger crowd.
    4. When I have a name I get a friend to say them out loud to me, that way I can tell if it sounds correct.

    The correct name has the power to show the reader straight away if he/she has landed in another world, another time, the past, the present, the future in the first few pages. My advice is always to choose names wisely. Don’t put the reader of with a shabby unthought-of name. Entice them with a name that will hook them mind, body and soul.

    Great Post from Mary Melrose,

    Who is a writer living in a magical world where mythological beings and magic exists? I have an extraordinary imagination, which has taken me to places no ordinary mortal has been. Drop by and be blown away with my world. Like Twists, my books will twist your head off.

    http://mary-jane-melrose.weebly.com/marys-blog

  3. stef mcdaid says:

    Very late to the party – but a couple of extra pointers to add:

    *Possessive form: consider avoiding names that are awkward to frame in the possessive form – e.g. Ross [Ross's Ross']

    * Never use “Said” as a name – I had a nightmare editing the dialogue attributes for a client who refused to rename the character: “I’m not taking any more of this,” Said said…

    *Great tip for proofreading in Word docs when there are complicated names that may be mis-spelled – when you reach the first instance of a correct spelling of a name [e.g. Papadopolous] right-click the name and either select [add to dictionary] or [ignore all] – this removes the redlines underneath and so any redlines remaining are probably incorrect variants (you also need to do this with the possessive forms and plurals).

    Good article :)

  4. Transaction7 says:

    In my earliest writing project, wanting names that suggested characterization but definitely did not suggest anyone we knew in my relatively new school, I carefully checked the yearbook and chose “Alice” for the romantic heroine, there being none, only to learn after “publication” that everybody but me knew this was the real first name of a very specific girl I liked. I recall using an old Air Force book’s appendix to find some others that sounded right.

    I need some character names that are not just right by period but by derivation as Scotch-Irish immigrants to the U.S. etc. and looking up surnames backward is awkward since the local state university no longer lets us “townies” use its resources.

    Personally, I wish some books came with an appendix listing the characters because I’ve been having “senior moments” since first grade, too long ago to mention, have a hard time remembering real names, and I hate having to dig back and recall who a name is from the first half of the book. I’m using one in writing a (first) novel but would definitely get sued if I published the original with the names of one or more people who inspired a character, given that they have flaws.

    How do you solve the problem somebody noted about search and replace? I’ve got one novel about 3/4th done and the temporary working names for several square-John characters are notorious criminals pending final assignment.

  5. Morry says:

    Lots of names.
    The link below is to a high school that has complete yearbooks from 1932 to 1963.
    http://www.mystrees.com/Geneseo/Index.html

  6. Hipwriter says:

    I gotta go, but I just gotta proofread a little. It’s “…when worse comes to worst.” Sorry, I just love my job so much.

  7. mikepascale says:

    Thanks, Brian. Common sense stuff but it’s always good to remind us!

    I’d point out that professional writers do not follow these rules enough. Many of not most epic fantasy, sword-and-sorcery and similar stories are rife with unpronounceable names (ask 10 people to pronounce “Cthulu” or ). Tolkein’s names of hobbits all sounded alike. My wife is reading a popular fantasy novel featuring no less than 10 characters whose names all begin with “M”.

    BUT…that still doesn’t negate your advice, because those things are still very off-putting for readers, regardless of the success of the works mentioned! They succeeded in spite of, not because of, those variations from the rules.

    Thanks again!

  8. Tresix says:

    About not giving a character that’s a killer a middle name or initial: Aren’t most serial killers/mass murderers/assassins known by their full names (Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, John Wayne Gacy, Mark David Chapman)?

    • You’re right, Tresix. It’s just that if you give an evil character a middle name, you run a greater risk of somebody out there with that exact name and who, in spite of the fact that it’s fiction, might take offense. And go online and give your book a 1-star review and hack your web site and eventually come after you and kill you and go on to become a famous serial killer.

  9. deedeemcd says:

    I like to use names that can be shortened and changed. It helps alleviate repetition, but also helps differentiate characters. For example, in one of my books, the main character is named Megan. Her dad calls her Meggie, and others call her Meg. Same with Jennifer: Her parents always call her Jennifer. Friends call her Jenny, and her significant other shortens it to Jen. Makes it more personal.

  10. larryinla says:

    Brian, have you run across anything like this for speculative fiction? How to pick names for science fiction or fantasy? You’d think there would be some help for this. Especially when you want very different names to help express how alien and foreign the settings are without making the names unpronounceable and memorable. Thanks.

    • Hello, Larry! My original article had some stuff about sci-fi names but it got cut. I included it when I wrote my book, ‘You’ve Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams.’ The short section is called ‘Names Not of This Earth’, p. 156. (Basically, get wild, but make them pronounceable.) Will we see you at the WD conference in LA?

  11. toddvandell says:

    As an addendum to my previous post (which seems to have gone missing or maybe I just can’t see it yet) commenting on Sydney Warburton, Jr.’s “letter”, which was actually a thinly disguised short story pretending to be a letter to the editor in the comment forum of the Writer’s Dig. If you have read any of the vast quantities of writing how-to articles available through Writer’s Digest and it’s myriad publishings? You would have remembered they suggest using dialect very cautiously and judiciously.

    Your story of the Irish Bogs? Did neither. Worse, it made it look like you hadn’t even bothered to spellcheck your story before having the nerve to forcibly publish it, foisting it on the entire forum, however many readers of it there are. If the on-going mispellings were part of your attempt at an Irish dialect? It was poorly executed. Very poorly. Maybe even worse than the awful Irish accent Tom Cruise used in Far And Away. And if you’ve ever seen that movie? That’s saying something. Those were some of the worst clichés of Irish dialect I’ve ever been subjected to.

    • nmelhado says:

      “If you have read any of the vast quantities of writing how-to articles available through Writer’s Digest and it’s myriad publishings? You would have remembered they suggest using dialect very cautiously and judiciously.”

      “If the on-going mispellings were part of your attempt at an Irish dialect? It was poorly executed.”

      “And if you’ve ever seen that movie? That’s saying something.”

      Learn when to use commas and question marks. This was absurdly poorly written.

  12. Sydney Warburton Jr. says:

    Indeed, true. I use names with meanings in most of my short stories, many of which I get from the “Dictionary of Given Names” here in the UCI Langson library. I also write in the vernacular of the location as in “The Bog” which takes place in Ireland:

    THE BOG

    It was another misty day, not quite foggy, but with an eerie mist, cold, chilling, one that permeates the body causing goose bumps and mental anguish indirectly, sort of a parametric feeling of sadness, you know that general malaise that overtakes one when stuck in a rut or the chips are down or something close to a tragedy occurs – that’s the effect the mist has on a normal person; but, the people who live here, those whose forefathers had settled this place several hundred years back, they were used to it; they were used to the feelings of gloom so much so that they thought it was normal. They had lost their frame of reference. But, oh, if one could only see the sun, that life-giving warmth of optimism, of brightness, rays of love, it might change their persona, might transmogrify them. But, there was no sun, not here, not next to the bogs, that marshy, quagmire of quivering acreage that is the bottomland, the denigration of geography that, luckily, only a small percentage of the landmass is extant. It was sort of a swampy marsh, almost like quicksand in places, perhaps quickmud is a better name. How many unfortunates either sank outright or might have been buried in those bogs? I can give you one instance or more of such a gory experience. I could, but maybe I won’t. And, then again, maybe I will. See for yourself. It’s such a nasty world, is it not? Particularly living by and for the bogs, working in the bogs.

    Without further ado, long ago there was a small house near one of those bogs, one bog of several, a house with a small family, mommy and daddy and four little ones, now somewhat grown. Somehow the family became smaller and perhaps the bog was responsible, perhaps. After all, bogs are not nice, no not at all. They are all consuming just as many folk in America are and not in a nice way. It is almost as if they have to eat, and yet they don’t really; it’s probably just out of nastiness, out of the degenerate landscape’s feeling that it got left out and was not a nice beach or a mountain or a slowly moving stream so that it developed a harshness, a bitter, somber mood that always prevailed. And that mood resulted in horrendous consequences at times, criminal acts for which the bog could not be prosecuted. After all, it wasn’t human, or was it; it sure acted like it was, at times. This could be one of those times.

    The bog people, that is those who lived close to the bogs to make a living, actually from the bogs because particular eatables could be grown in the bogs providing the environment within could be somewhat controlled, but not without eminent and imminent danger. The bog people had a tough life, a hard life of near poverty, although they were self-sufficient and did not have to rely on the egregious, all consuming corporation to provide for them never knowing when they would be dumped, always reduced to a number, that reduction including a person’s feelings of loss of worth, their intrinsic value to themselves and their family, their diminished pride, their thankless hard work evaporated for those moving from corporation to corporation, the endless proving of one’s abilities and securing a reputation and then being released as the economy falls and staring over again repeating the daunting effort. Yes, these people were self-sufficient, albeit, at a low level of sufficiency but with pride intact.

    Bog work was very hard and demanding. The children as they grew into manhood knew exactly what was required, what to expect in life until the end, with no remorse, no thinking, “Gee, I wonder what it would be like doing something else, being somewhere else.” No, they did not think in such illustrious terms, at least not normally. As each day came to an end, they would trod wearily back to the cottage, eat and go to bed until the dawning, when the bugler since time immemorial awakened them, the rooster. Without the rooster, gravity and weariness might have caused them to oversleep.

    And so, as the family ends the day, the Patriarch Airell, returning home says to his wife, Portia, “Aye, tis’ another day gone, it tis’. And what is it for suppa, me loove, more Irish stew, the best?”

    “Aye, it tis’, me aandsome chaamer. And did ye get all the work done today?”

    “Ah, yes, me love. And without adue, Shepard haas announced ee has other plaans. Ee does not want to be swallowed up by the bog, you know, not worthy of a life of toil as we. And, I say ee should be so lucky. A nice cottage not far from the sea. Haandmade sweaters of the finest Scottish wool, if I might use the term, to keep im warm and your fine Irish stew. Ee doesn’t know ow good ee as it, me loovely woife.”

    “And don’t forget the loovely weather ere, me love.”

    “Ah, come now. Yeere being a bit sarcastic, are ye not? And wot wiggled yere charming whotsit this day. Did ye get a caller, perhaps the young dolt from the next cottage, again. All ee wants is a bit of our yoong and beautiful daughter, Leoma, the bit I think of as lewd. I’ll shove a shotgun up his ye know what and won’t hesitate when the trigger comes acallin’.”

    “Oh my. Did I pull your chain, this fine evening? Twasn’t meant to be, twas not. I was only joshing with ye, me loove, you know that. Why, I haave me own sweaters to wear. If only these bumps on me chest would stop getting bigger, I wouldn’t haave to keep anitting.”

    “Well, me loove, perhaps I’d better keep me aands off for awhile. I’m a man of sensuous habit, you know.”

    “Oh, and do I know and I loove it. Perhaps we should skip the stew tonight.”

    Airell knows she is only kidding, a tease as most wives are. Without the stew, he could not get through the next day. Just then, the three sons and the daughter enter after doing their outside chores, something many families in America today are missing with the spoiled generation, the silver-spooners with all their electronic contraptions.

    The first son, Shepard, speaks up, “Well, I finally got Leoma to milk the cow correctly. She no longa makes the cow scream when she yanks on the oodders. I guess she thinks it is something else, you know belongs to the young fellah down the road.”

    She cuts in, “Oh, you beast. Caan’t you think of anythin’ else? I ardly know im. Ee keeps achasin’ me. Pa says ee is a dolt and I believe im. Ee caan’t even pronounce me name right, can ee ma? Calls me Lemon.”

    “Don’t get me involved eere, young un. Besides, I thought ee was admirin’ me.”

    Choke, choke, by the sons trying to keep from laughing. The subject changes to something more serious. The youngest son, Vaughan, speaks up. “All. I eard that Daly from the next bog come up amissin’. Ee was dragging the rake and it got caught on somethin’. It appears when ee went to oontangle it, ee disappeared. It looks like the bog got ungry as it does at times. Swallowed im’ whole without a shout.”

    The oldest son again speaks, “Aye, and that’s why I ave different plans for me future coome next few months. I ave written letters to a tannery to learn a trade. It will be useful eere at home, too. We caan shift to sheep raising, a mooch safer way to earn money for us. I ave me eye on a plot of land nearby and ave spoken with the owner who will sell it to us on credit until we can bring in enough shillings to pay for it. And, wot do ye think of that?”

    The father speaks up, “Why Shep, I was not aware, I did not know. I thought ye were to leave us. I am proud of ye, son. Why, I can see meself, the sheep baron of Galway.”

    “Oh, my. And I would be baroness! I can see meself now, in baubles and bangles and beads.”

    Choke, choke, again. Chathan, the middle son now speaks up, “Why ma, you would look like a queen, Mary Queen of Scots.”

    The father immediately retorts, “Chat, mind ye tongue. There will be no profanity in this ouse.”

    “Sorry, pa. But, that was many a year back. Besides she lost er ed, she did. A fitting ending for a Scot.”

    “And, a good thing is wos, too. It’s too bad t’was Elizabeth that did it. She was juust as baad, she wos; shoulda lost ers, too, the cheapskate. We poor Irish suffered so mooch. But, we are a hardy people, we are.”

    And so as time goes on with the daily grind, one day Shepard is missing from the return home from working the bogland, hadn’t been seen since the morn.

    Airell addresses the tragedy, “Ma, I got sume baad news. Really baad. It appears our Shep aas given is life to the bogs. We gaathered for lunch under the alders and ee was nowhere aroound. And so we akept aworkin and ee was not seen thereafter. I think the worst as appened.”

    Portia, a stoic as much as humanly possible, her first born gone, hides the tears and thinks optimistically.

    “Maybe pa, ee went to see that girl ees been a’courtin on and off, you know, Rufina, several miles away. Ee’ll show up tomorrow, I’ll bet me laast pot of Irish stew on that.”

    “Let’s ope that’s true, Ma. I know ees koinda independent, that lad. Let’s all hoodle and pray for is safety.”

    They recite the following: “Lord, our Lord of Mercy, Great God in heaven, we pray for our soon Sheperd’s safety and is return to us, his looving faamily, Amen.”

    Several months go by with no sign of Sheperd, they within their hearts knowing he is with the Lord, and the grind goes on as usual, but limited by the loss of the extra hand and debts begin to pile up. Airell is concerned not having been in debt before, concerned about feeding his family and his pride is wavering, his self-worth diminishing. The debts are not large and their cottage is not in jeopardy, in the family for over three hundred years, just some small bills for food and living expenses to the town markets, but to him, it is large always having paid his way as a man of true character. Vaughan, the little one, has actually taken over some of the burden that was Shep’s, of true Irish character, never complaining, a youngster of fortitude building the foundational cells of self-reliance and duty. He would make a great marine today.

    The family struggles without Shep, any optimism of his still being alive having waned long ago. Airell gathers the family after a long day, the next day to be one of rejoicing for the Irish, St. Paddy’s day, the day their patron Saint, Patrick who came upon the Irish shores in the year 432 as a missionary for the Catholic church who had previously been sold into slavery in Ireland for six years, even while of noble birth, a relative of St. Martin of Tours. While in slavery he found the love of God and escaped to France, received instructions from St. Martin, returning in 432 to undertake the Irish mission by the authority of Pope Celestine to spread the Christian faith beyond the limits of the Roman Empire. He did this and is considered one of the greatest missionaries of all by converting pagan kingdoms and making Ireland a part of universal Christendom refusing to take any personal credit for his success attributing it to Divine Grace.

    Airell and his family respected the day of the Lord, Sunday, and never did they work on that day. Tomorrow would the culmination for them of the year’s work, they having to walk the ten miles to the village where the festivities were to take place in honor of Saint Patrick. This day, however, was special to them, for they had lost a son to the bog and they would join others who had suffered the same fate, other families who they saw usually only twice a year, now and during the Christmas season when they shut down all bogging activities for one week.

    “Tomorrow, me looved ones, we shall pay tribute to our Saint as well as to our belooved Shep. May is soul always rest in peace. I knew ee’s alookin’ down on us with radiance. Ee woos a credit to maankind, ee woos and I knew ee as a graand place oop there.”

    “Indeed ee wos, as you are me looving oosbaand.”

    “Ah, yee’re paatronizing me, are ye not, me fine lady. I’ll give ye a special prize tonight for thaat, I will.”

    “Tis’ not my birthday. We caan do without the prizes til’ then, me loove.”

    Bored with the interchange between his parents, Chathan, says, “I caan’t wait. I loove to play the games at the fair, I do. Why, laast year I woon that gift, a stoofed moonkie, I did. Maybe this year it will be a cage to put im in.”

    The daughter, Leoma, chides in, “Why Chattey, they doon’t put stoofed moonkies in cages, you fool. Only live woons.”

    “Well, Lemon, I’ll be the first. So, there.”

    “Oooh, Ma. Ee called me lemon, ee did.”

    “You leave me out of yoor transgressions, little oones.”

    “Wots a trans.. uh.. transwhat was it, ma?”, Chathan asks.

    “You dodo, Chatty. It’s that thing on those new fangled machines I saw when in toon last,” Leoma replies.

    “Oh. But that doosn’t make any sense. I doon’t ave one of thoose,” says Chathan.

    Little Vaughan having been proccupied with his dreams of tomorrow at the fair, says, “Ma? Caan I ave sum ice cream tomorra, can I?”

    “I doon’t see why not, little one. Yoove earned it for certain, aworkin’ in the bogs on Saturday and aafta school and doin’ yoor chores around ere as a little maan. Why, you caan ave two ice creams, me soon.”

    Airell, having been silent in his thoughts thinking about Shep, a thought that is forever with him, wraps it up for the evening, “Well, faamily, it is toime to retoire so we shaall be fresh in the mornin’ for that walk.”

    A fair in Ireland in those days is nothing like one of today in America. No shootings, perhaps a few fistfights with a few manly bruises – you know what good Irish whiskey can do to the brain – , no knifings, a fun day for all, everyone Irish, not a hodgepodge of nationalities and races attempting, if that, to get along in some reasonably civil manner. No, they were all Irish and all proud in the same way, oh, except for the protestants. But, they were tolerated because, after all, they were Irish, too.

    The village was not large, lying beneath the South Ireland Moraine in the older Drift, ancient with the usual cathedral, so large for such a small town, such a fine example of medieval gothic architecture. It reminds me of my own hometown, Fairhaven, Massachusetts with its numerous edifices worthy of a much larger metropolis, all built by Henry “Hell Hound” Huddleston Rogers of Standard Oil, our benefactor who was raised in the town, considered by Mark Twain as his best friend. He became a wildcatter in the Western Pennsylvania fields – hence, the name Pennzoil, invented the oil pipeline as well as a method to separate the components in oil. Our Unitarian church is modeled after a Tudor style church in England on a smaller scale, but an exact duplicate in every way; the Fairhaven High School from which I graduated is another great castle-like building of granite, oak and stained glass windows at one time one of the highest rated schools in America, many BU graduates as teachers, some from Harvard and Yale and other Ivy League colleges. Mr. Rogers saw to that. But, back to the Irish village, one that defies anything in America because of its medieval pedigree.

    The village old built on the “row plan” in Kerry on the Southwestern coast warmed to some degree by the Gulf Stream has been described by A.A. Milne in the following poem:

    1Between the woods on folded lands
    An accidental village stands,
    Untidily, and with an air
    Of wondering who left it there,
    Four square upon a little hill
    The Norman church is Norman still;
    And on the winding road below,
    The aging houses come and go,
    Grey faced and wrinkled, in a long
    Indented row.

    (from The Norman Church, Finn 1961: 117)

    Ah yes, the village of old, so warm, yet so cold, at times personless, or so it appears in pictures, vacant streets as if a victim of On The Beach, nuclear fallout, not like Broadway or the Champs, or one of the main avenues in any large city in China, no, very lonely and damp, enough to chill the bones, but, not this day, the day of the festival, the celebration of St. Patrick, and of Shep, Airell and Portia’s first born who is with the Lord. Or, is he?

    So far in between are such festivities for this family that they reap ultimate enjoyment from it, not like today when each day for some is borderline festival, the demarcation very thin. So many today have so much, of course while so many others do not, borderline nothingness, not a pot to do you know what in. Should anyone care? Well, I guess that is determined by empathy of which so many are devoid of, you know, the Wall Street gang, the rippers as in Jack the Ripper, not actually, but with as much pain. But, I won’t go there now and spoil the fun of this festival for this family is having the day of their lives celebrating Christianity and the Saint that turned the Irish royals away from Paganism to Jesus. And then, they walk the ten miles home not even knowing they are doing so in such elation over the celebration and the thoughts of Shep looking down on them from heaven. Or, is he?

    The next day, Monday, after a great day, but no cage for Vaughan, it is time to go to work. The little family exits the little cottage, close to the sea, their feelings somewhere between remorse for their lost family member and a heightened sacredness of bliss following the day of St. Patrick. While working the bogs, in the distance is seen a horseman. Now that is something different. The family has not ever had a horse and it is not a typical sight in these parts, a luxury way beyond their means. Behind the horseman is a huge white mass moving slowly. As the mass gets closer, their outlines resemble something fluffy, really fluffy for it is over a thousand fluffy sheep. Airell recognizes the horseman immediately. It is Sheperd, Shep his missing son, gone so long. He is aghast and yells out to the others, “It’s Shep, it’s Shep, Oh, me God our prayers ave been aanswered. I knew they would. Shep, Shep what ave ye there, me son? Where ave ye been, laad ?”

    Shep approaches and dismounts. “Alas, me father, I ave come to save us from this valiant but somewhat impoverished way of living. We are now sheepherders of the highest order. We will be moving to higher ground, with your approval, father, to a new cottage in the vaalley of God which I have purchased in your name, my noble father.”

    MORAL: never give up hope and always strive for betterment.

    The origin and meaning of the characters names from the Dictionary of Given Names :
    Airell: a freeman (Celtic)
    Portia: a harbor, safety (Latin)
    Sheperd: one who tends sheep (Teutonic); variant of Sheppard
    Leoma: a gleam of light (Anglo-saxon)
    Chatham: a child of the manor (Old English)
    Vaughan: little (Celtic)
    Rufina: red haired (Latin)

    • toddvandell says:

      Okay. Sydney Warburton, Jr.? I feel I have to say something here in response to your “letter” of reply to this article. Two things. First, I found it interesting you felt the need to mention you were in UCI’s Langson Library. Out of curiosity, how did that have any relevance to or bearing on the article about choosing character names? Or…was it merely a none-too-subtle way to just name-drop that into your “letter”?

      And second…I have to say, you have a great deal of audacity using a Writer’s Digest comment board as a place to post/publish one of your own short stories. Really? Are you just that desperate to get published? I admit I am inclined to write long posts myself from time to time. I have never once even considered using a comment board to publish one of my own stories. Because I think it would be egregiously self-serving and egotistical to even allow the thought to cross my mind. The epitome of conceit.

      And, frankly? It’s pretty tacky of you. I’m sure in your mind you justified it because it was sort of on-topic about character names, since you “cleverly” added your list of character names and what they mean to sort of tie your short story in. But, seriously? You could have done that without blatantly using this forum to publish your short story. Sorry. Personally? I find it not at all clever. Just really quite tacky annoying and as I said, audacious of you. And intrusive, while I’m at at.

      I’m still scratching my head in rather stunned disbelief. And not because I’m mad you thought of it first. Just honestly can’t believe you did it at all. I feel it’s rather inappropriate, not that you asked my opinion. I hope the forum moderator will consider quietly taking it down. I feel it’s just really bad form.

      If you’ve ever read Writer’s Digest or any of it’s newsletters, as I have, I am quite certain I have never seen any article saying hey, here’s a thought: one really good place to publish your own short stories is disguised as a comment letter in a comment forum on their website. I think it’s rather nervy and disrespectful that you did it.

      Maybe I wouldn’t have minded so much if the story you foisted upon us wasn’t such a hackneyed, over-written schlockfest. I don’t know if by mentioning that you were at that UCI library you were also none-too-subtly bragging that you are enrolled in UCI’s very well-known and much-vaunted Writing school?

      But, if you were or are? I really wonder what your professors would say about publishing a short story disguised (and very poorly disguised, at that) as a letter to the editor of a writing magazine. And if that short story is just one example of something you’ve written while enrolled in UCI’s writing program? Not a particularly effective advertisement for the program. Sorry to be so brutally honest. You had the nerve to publish it the way you did. Afraid you have to take the critiques that come with that decision.

  13. straunt1015 says:

    HuffmanHanni, I agree with you about readers wanting names they can pronounce. Personally, I find other cultures, languages, and names fascinating, but sometimes they can distract from the story if they’re difficult to pronounce. If you’re writing fiction, you could probably get away with tweaking the spelling of the more difficult names. I recently read a novel that featured many Welsh characters with very Welsh names. :) The names added to the credibility of the setting and the story, but there were many times that I had to set the book down and look up the pronunciation of a name. It really took away from the flow of the story. I would say that anglicizing the names may be a good idea. They’ll still lend credibility to the setting, but they won’t distract from the story. Good luck!

  14. HuffmanHanni says:

    One thing I wonder about is if it could be considered offensive to anglicize a name that looks harsh? For example, I’m doing research about medieval Wales and honestly, looking at Welsh names, they look impossible to pronounce and Word is having a field day with all the red squiggly lines dripping off the screen. Shakespeare had anglicized the name of one historical person from Wales in the time period I’m looking at in Henry IV. I don’t want to completely butcher a culture or country’s language but I think as a reader, I want to see something I could actually pronounce. I don’t want to give everyone English names, although several people I’ve read about who lived in Wales did have English names, because that feels like I’d be lessening the point of my story.

    • Ellie0Wicklow says:

      I can understand your concern about anglicizing names- there are certainly circumstances in which it would be offensive. I think Maggie Stiefvater handled the Welsh name issue very gracefully in her Raven Cycle books. The first time she mentioned the Owain Glyndŵr, she used that proper (and tricky-to-read) Welsh name. The character speaking then said something along the lines of, “Over time, the name got twisted and simplified into Owen Glendower.” For the remained of the books, he was referred to as Glendower. It was a lot easier on the reader’s eyes, and because she acknowledged the original name and the anglicization, it wasn’t at all offensive. Maybe you could try a technique like that?

  15. suzannew says:

    Great article. I always have a tough time reading a story/book that has characters with the same first name initial. I try to stay away from that. As a helpful tip, watch the credits at the end of a movie for names. You can categorize by movie era and location.

  16. jimdens says:

    Great article Brian! Although the majority of the time my charaters’ names just “pop into my head” that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to work, so, after writing the first draft, I always check the accuracy of the names. Sound, as you said and annieb echoed, is incredibly important. Even more important, to me, is the meaning of the name. I use the Social Security Adminstration site as annieb does, and another great place is NameBerry http://nameberry.com/. Not only do they tell you the origin and meaning of names, but they also have great lists of “types” of names.
    Gracious, I didn’t mean to go on and on! Obviously you’ve kindled a great conversation here Brian. Thanks!

  17. SJ_Mitchell says:

    Great article.

    I’m currently working on a story where no character has a name just yet. Instead so as not to interrupt the flow of my writing until I develop names, I call them what they are: “Squire runs to help Sorceress up to her feet, while Ranger knocks another arrow.”

    I will do a simple find and replace to fix the names when they come to me. The name needs to be memorable, something that flows off the tongue so when it’s spoken it’s not forgotten. I also try to avoid picking names that may look cool on paper, but are just silly and embarrassing to say. Odds are if you pronounce it several different ways, readers will be just as confused. A reader shouldn’t be focused on pronouncing the name right, it should read smoothly.

    Exotic names are nice, but they can be ridiculous of the writer gets carried away with the number of syllables used.

  18. Blueocean says:

    I have different methods. Sometimes I come across such a great name that I’ll hold onto it until I have a character that fits the name. After all, we all know you can’t just randomly doll out names to just any character.

    Where I work, I come across unique names all the time. Or there are names that just sound nice. I’ll stash them away until I have need of them.

  19. jdsilencio says:

    Brian, I just published a post about the importance of choosing a befitting name for characters on http://www.liatbehr.com – so I really enjoyed the practical advice you offer for doing it.

  20. annieb123 says:

    An incredibly useful resource for historical names for the last 100 years is an index provided by the Social Security Administration which shows the top 100 male and female baby names for each decade since the 1880s.

    Here’s the link. It’s fun just to browse it even if you don’t need it for your writing.

    http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/decades/index.html

    • HuffmanHanni says:

      There are some baby name websties that allow you to do name searches by country of origin. Fun to see what some mean and how they look.

      Some websites also have a random name generator tool.

  21. bance22 says:

    Thanks for the good tips. Btw, shouldn’t that be “if worse comes to worst”? “Worst comes to worst doesn’t make sense.

      • ewolfe says:

        If it’s true that the “worst to worst” original meaning in 1596 was that the “phrase describes the worst thing in theory turning into the worst thing in actuality” then consider that it takes an explanation for a 400+ year phrase for it to make sense today, and is it worth being right at the expense of being perceived as wrong?

        I heartily disagree with the other explanation that over time words and phrases lose their meaning and improper use becomes common and thus ultimately proper.

        For common sense perception, I would advise always use “worse to worst.” The very structure of the phrase indicates a progression.

        Bad, Worse, Worst.

        Here we can clearly see the progression from worse to worst and I think that’s the most intuitive understanding most readers will have.

        In my experience, those who say “if worst comes to worst” are also the same people who say things like, “I never liked him from the gecko,” “I would never take you for granite,” (Thanks?) and “I could care less” which drives me insane.

        This are usually spoken by people who don’t read. They hear other people say things, they misunderstand what was said and then they incorporate the new phrase into their vocabulary.

        The only thing worse is when someone doesn’t just misspeak a phrase, but completely doesn’t know what they are saying like when I heard a person testify in court (under oath) that they were “literally walking on eggshells” around a person that made them nervous.

        My favorite misspoken phrase came from my nephew who bragged to me one day that he had eaten “Flaming Yon” the night before.

        Anyway, it’s up to you. Be right with a 400 year old justification, or go with common sense and a good idea of what the reader will think.

  22. Ailora says:

    I usually think of character names that inspire stories. For me, character names are paramount. They have to click. But on the current story I’m working on, wouldn’t you know it, the names aren’t settling with me. So, I’ve been looking up names and meanings online and wavering back and forth.

    But as far as inspiration, I almost always read movie credits.

  23. davnick says:

    A nice reminder to do your homework.

    Of all the listed “rules,” I think sound is the most important. That really covers it all. It has to SOUND memorable and appropriate.

    For the villain of my story, a short, stocky, no-neck of a guy, I wanted the growling sound of a bear, without being too obvious about it. So I considered names like “Grimm” (too heavy-handed) and “Grigsby.” Grrrrr.

    City directories are also an excellent source of era-appropriate names. For names that sounded uniquely Southern, the setting of my story, I looked at lists of governors from Southern states. If they were popular enough to get elected, that suggested that their name was memorable. (I took a first name from here and a last name from there, never using a single governor’s full name.)

    And for slaves, who abound in my story, I looked everywhere: slave testimonies, classified ads for runaways, slave narratives, newspapers, and so on. An Internet search of African names turned up some wonderful finds.

    Another consideration, too, is who gets linked with whom. If Jim and Jane fall in love, for example, one of them just has to change their first name. More often than not a one-syllable name fits more appropriately with a multi-syllable one. Same for a first and last name. “Jim Smith” — and I actually know a Jim Smith — just sounds boring. “Winston Smythe” might work better. Or “Jim Higginbottam” (or -bottham).

    Place names can work, too. Not maybe Cedar Rapids, but Cleveland or Tallmadge or Aberdeen. Just pull out an atlas and browse away.

    The great thing is that when you come up with the right name, you’ll know it. You’ll SEE the person.

  24. peterd1 says:

    For item 2, yearbooks are a great idea (plus you might stumble onto a great photo that is realistic for that era). Another idea is to search online to find the most popular names for the year your character was born.

  25. erb says:

    The whole list of cleches seems representative of a bunch of judgemental people who need to get a life. Oops, did I just use a cleche?

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