Writer's Digest West Pre-Conference Tip: Making Up Monikers Matters

Over the next few weeks many of the presenters of the upcoming Writer's Digest West Conference (Sept. 27-29 in L.A.) will be dishing out pre-conference writing and publishing tips. Here's our first installment thanks to Eva Shaw who will be teaching the workshop "Write Your Novel in 20 Minutes."
Publish date:

Read the following names. Can you picture these characters?

  • Sissy Evangeline Bryce-Martin
  • Troy Flint
  • Moby Egglefunk
  • Raven Lovelace
  • Harold Buckmeister

Names matter and when writing a novel, it seems to civilians (that is, non-writers) that we writers spend way too much time pondering who we will name what. They wonder, "Why care if your protagonist is Felicity Foghorn or Jill Jackson?" But we know that characters' names determine the likeability, dislikeability, and yawn-ability of individuals who people our books. Names are telling and help explain a story.

When I wrote the Christian values novel Games of the Heart, my protagonist was Pastor Jane Angieski. I chose the first name because I wanted her to be everywoman, a regular every-day Jane kind of gal. Angieski? I needed a Polish name to connect certain parts of the plot and what better way to do that than to honor her with the birth name of my late mom-in-law, Stella.

Now in Doubts of the Heart, a connected-world novel, my star is Nica Dobson. Yes, there was a method to my naming madness. When a stranger calls her by the horrid nickname she was pegged with in high school, Nica becomes defensive, fighting off her teenage persona of wallflower and nerd. What was my thought process?

First I "tweaked" Nica into Nikky. The book brings Nica back to Honolulu for the 20th reunion of Kukui High, yes, the same one that dreamy Commander Steve McGarrett, of Hawaii Five-O, supposedly attended. Because I wanted the uber-confident Nica to wrestle with her past I made her maiden name Ticky. Adding wikiwiki, Hawaiian for “fast,” to the middle of this nickname and suddenly the reader better understands this painful time in Nica's life. Could you imagine going through high school taunted by the nickname of Nikky Wikiwiki Ticky?

According to www.babycenter.com, Emma and Liam are tops on the name popularity list. Grace, Anna, David, John and Michael are always in style; therefore by selecting a "standard" name in your novel, the book won't show its age by giving a character one of these as it might if you name a protagonist Luke or Olivia, also high on that 2013 list. Likewise Gertrude, Clarence, and Horace could be excellent choices if your story is set in the early 1900s.

Naming characters in a specific way brings to mind the characters' ages and even personality traits. Names can further the story or give clues to a plot. Let’s say you’re writing a story about a woman who has spent her entire life near Tesuque Pueblo, New Mexico. Pretend that she's lost everything in the Great Recession and moves to LA to live with a distant cousin. You could call her Starlight Smith except to me I then see her driving an ancient VW camper and eating a micro-biotic diet. However name her Starlight Little Tree Smith and you've instantly added history and another dimension to the character.

Triple check that you're not subjecting your readers to memory mayhem by using similar sounds when naming characters. It’s hard for a reader keep characters straight when their names start with the same letter, such as Steve, Sonny, Stephen, and Sam. It makes me wonder why writers on TV's Bones called the leading characters Brennan and Booth. Unless you're writing a hit TV series, avoid the same name/sound concept with one-syllable names, such as Ted, Ned, Fred, Red, and Jed and let's not forget Ed. You get the picture?

Humorists, who know what tickles our funny bones, insist there's no specific word or name that makes people expect a punch line. Yet you may want to refrain from calling a character Polly Prudence Parnell or Peter Pickles Parsnip, unless you are doing it to embed this character into the reader's mind. The hero in Doubts of the Heart is Payton Yu. I chose the last name of Yu so that when the happy ending arrives, once the mysteries are solved, I could once more use a twist of the names. I won't slip in a spoiler here, but when you read the novel, let me know how effective all my naming research has been.

You decide if Shakespeare was right. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But when you’re naming “roses” make sure you’re helping readers understand what you're going for because making up moniker matters.

Learn More from Eva Shaw at the Writer's Digest West Conference, Sept. 27-29 in Los Angeles

"Write Your Novel in 20 Minutes" is one of the workshops Eva Shaw, Ph.D. will be teaching at the upcoming Writer’s Digest Conference. She's the author or ghost of more than 70 published books, dozens of which have been bestsellers. She is a sought-after ghostwriter for celebrities, notables and headline-making superstars, crafting their nonfiction books, memoirs or novels. Often referred to as the world’s leading online writing professor, Eva practices what she teaches sharing tips, tricks and techniques with those she mentors. She has created and teaches five highly distinct and popular writing courses offered at 3000 colleges and universities worldwide through Education to Go. Visit Eva at www.evashaw.com and connect on Facebook.

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