Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's OK because each mistake is a great learning opportunity. The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them early in the process. Note: The mistakes in this series aren't focused on grammar rules, though we offer help in that area as well.
Rather, we're looking at bigger picture mistakes and mishaps, including the error of using too much exposition, neglecting research, or researching too much. This week's writing mistake writers make is choosing slap-dash character names.
Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Choosing Careless Character Names
Choosing the names for the characters in your story is a big deal. Not only do you have to live with them through the months (or years) it takes you to draft and edit your story, you’ll also have to live with them throughout the publication and promotion process (which, if you’re lucky, will last you through a long and successful writing career). And, so will your readers. The last thing you want to do is choose a name that carries little to no meaning or that you’ll hate to hear for years to come. You can’t predict how readers will react to the names you choose, but if you choose a name with meaning, that can help readers overcome their personal associations with the name (hello, high school nemesis…).
Here are a few tips to help you choose thoughtful names for your characters.
1. Inspired by Real People
I always read the dedication, acknowledgments, and copyright pages, and you should too. They hold a wealth of information that can offer insight into the making of the book and how the writing/publishing process happens. They can also offer hints about why characters are named what they are. Occasionally, you’ll find that a person named in the dedication or acknowledgments holds the same name as a character (human or otherwise) in the book as an homage to that person. If someone is meaningful in your life or has helped you in a significant way, naming a character after them can be a thoughtful way to show gratitude and give the character a name that has meaning.
I’m just finishing up The Night Portrait by Laura Morelli, a book with dual timelines of Leonardo da Vinci painting a portrait in the Renaissance in Milan, and Europe in World War II when the Monument’s Men are searching for the same da Vinci painting. In the World War II timeline, Edith’s (an art conservator) elderly father suffers from dementia and keeps his daughter’s childhood stuffed animal, Max, nearby as a comfort object. The name Max seemed familiar and when I flipped to the dedication, there was the name: “For Max, and for all the others who work for good.” I don’t know who Max is to the author, but that’s OK. I can infer that he has/had positive meaning in the author’s life or research related to the book. Perhaps he’s explained further in the acknowledgments, but I haven’t read the ending yet and don’t want any spoilers (which can occur in acknowledgments placed after the end of the story).
Why did the author chose to name a stuffed animal after a person instead of a human character? While I can’t say for sure, I have a guess. Characters (particularly in war stories) are frequently forced to make a choice between two bad options, and you might not want your real-life inspiration to feel connected to those choices or think you’re making a judgment about them because of what the character does. Naming an inanimate object or minor character whose actions are minimal but positive after them might be a safer bet.
Order your copy of The Night Portrait by Laura Morelli.
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2. Unique (to Some), but With a Meaningful Backstory
Don’t give your characters unique names (or nicknames) just for the heck of it. I tried that in a novel I started in grad school and it was … not a good choice. There was no rhyme or reason behind my decision, and I ended up hating typing the name (and even worse nickname) so much that I gave up the project (there were other reasons too, but this one stands out). But when using unique names in purposeful, meaningful ways, it can be a masterful choice and add a layer of character development.
Starr Carter and Seven Carter in Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Concrete Rose are the children of Maverick Carter, and their names are acknowledged as unique in the books. Sometimes they face questions or are teased about their names by other characters, and sometimes their own father is questioned about why he chose the names. In The Hate U Give, he explains:
“See, I believe in giving my kids names that mean something. Sekani, that means merriment and joy. […] I named your sister Starr because she was my light in the darkness. Seven, that’s a holy number. The number of perfection. I ain’t saying you’re perfect, nobody is, but you’re the perfect gift God gave me.”
With this explanation paired with additional comments by him in Concrete Rose, we learn a lot about what’s important to Carter and his own history. Plus, the readers see the hopes and dreams Maverick has for his children.
A few scenes later, Starr’s white boyfriend, Chris, asks,
“Why do some Black people give their kids odd names? I mean, look at you guys’ names. They’re not normal.”
“My name normal,” DeVante says, all puffed-up sounding. “I don’t know what you talking about.”
“Man, you named after a dude from Jodeci,” Seven says.
“And you named after a number! What’s your middle name? Eight?”
“Anyway, Chris,” Seven says, “DeVante’s got a point. What makes his name or our names any less normal than yours? Who or what defines ‘normal’ to you? If my pops were here, he’d say you’ve fallen into the trap of the white standard.”
Color creeps into Chris’s neck and face. “I didn’t mean—okay, maybe ‘normal’ isn’t the right word.”
“Nope,” I say.
“I guess uncommon is the word instead?” he asks. “You guys have uncommon names.”
“I know ’bout three other DeVantes in the neighborhood though,” DeVante says.
“Right. It’s about perspective,” says Seven. “Plus, most of the names white people think are unusual actually have meanings in African languages.”
“And let’s be real, some white people give their kids ‘uncommon’ names too,” I say. “That’s not limited to Black people. Just ’cause it doesn’t have a De- or La- on the front doesn’t make it okay.”
And that conversation is a great reminder—a name may be uncommon to you, but common to another person (and vice versa), including other characters. As the writer, you don’t owe your readers an explanation of that name, but in the context of the story, including some reasoning may be a realistic option for the situations the characters find themselves in.
Order your copy of The Hate U Give and Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas.
3. Common for a Place, Culture, or Time Period
That said, not all characters need a profound backstory for their names. Sometimes, just making the character’s name contemporary to the time, culture, and place in which the story is set is enough. Plenty of resources abound for searching out names that would make a character fit right in to the world around them.
Or, doing the exact opposite if your character is meant to be an outsider to that place. If your character is moving to a new part of the world or, perhaps, time traveling, choosing a name that will emphasize their newness to that place can make for interesting conversations and feelings.
Choosing the right name for your characters is an important task, much like naming your own children or pets. The names will follow you and your characters throughout the life of the book. Treat it with the same level of importance as any other part of the character's development for maximum benefit.