Don’t Make These 4 Mistakes When You Name Your Characters

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It’s clear that from the outset my parents never intended for me to amount to anything. How could I? With a name like “Ninie?” Please.

Fame and fortune do not come to people named Ninie Bovell (My maiden name.) Gabriella Bovary? You could work with that. Even something as pedestrian as Madeline Bovell or Rebecca Bovell or (though you’d lose points here for lack of originality) Elizabeth Bovell. But Ninie? I never had a chance.

If I sound a mite hostile, bear in mind that in one decisive stroke my parents sentenced their precious newborn daughter to a lifetime of explanations that began my first day at Muleshoe Elementary School. (Yeah, Muleshoe. The hits just keep on coming.) After a painful week, I had a rap down that I still use today:

“No, it’s not Ninnie like skinny and penny. It’s Ninie—rhymes with tiny and shiny. 9e…get it? And no, it doesn’t mean anything, it isn’t short for anything, long for anything, or a substitute for anything. It just is. (Pause here for the inevitable ‘Why?’) You got me, pal, I couldn’t tell you.”

So my question to you, my writer friends, is this: have you done something similar to the characters in your novel? Have you given serious thought to the names of the people who will live your tale—serious thought? Or did you just glance up one day at a television commercial and now the dashing hero who rescues the beautiful countess in your French Revolution romance novel is Aflak Geico.

"A rose by any name would smell as sweet" does NOT apply to naming fictional characters.  Here are four mistakes you can avoid when you name yours.

1. Names have to line up with the time, the culture and the setting of your novel. But remember to take it back a generation. If your novel is set in Atlanta during the Civil War, the characters were born in the 1840’s. Probably weren’t a lot of Georgia mamas naming their baby girls Lindsay or Shamika or their boys Shane or Tyrone in 1840. Check the origins of the names you choose. Sure, it’s a safe bet you can name an Irishman Patrick O’Malley. But if you pick Nguyen for an Asian character—is that a Vietnamese name? Cambodian, Chinese, Laotian?

2. Say the name out loud. Is it pronounceable? Loyal Reader will skip over it if he can’t say it in his head when he reads. (I refer you to War and Peace.) Check how the names of character combinations fit, so you don’t wind up with best friends Bert and Ernie or Laverne and Shirley. Is the name an inadvertent tongue twister—Seth Sainsbury, Elizabeth Thornton, Keith Police? Don’t repeat first letters—Jeff, Jake, Jenny, Jessica—or ending sounds, Billy, Johnny, Becky, Shirley. Vary the number of syllables between first and last names and among characters. Change co-conspirators Caleb Wilson, Richard Jacobs and Lisa Martin to Caleb Wilkerson, Rick Jacobs and Lisa Martinelli.

3. Truth is, no matter what name you pick, you can’t stave off every adverse reaction. Though Isaiah Dunstable may be a dignified federal judge in your political suspense novel, he may also have been the kid in Loyal Reader’s third grade class who threw up his hot dog every Friday. But unless you’re trying to achieve a desired effect—humor or satire—you’re asking for trouble if you start pilfering names from the realm of the iconic. Yes, you absolutely can name your heroine Scarlett O’Hara. Just understand whose face will come into Loyal Reader’s mind every time the character is mentioned. No amount of elegant prose on your part will be powerful enough to change that. Name your hero Ricky Ricardo if you choose, and “you got some s’plainin’ to do, Lucy,” will echo behind every line of dialogue. And if you decide to name the bad guy in your Western adventure novel John Wayne—good luck with that.

4. My favorite gem of character-naming advice was gleaned from experience: don’t give any of them names that end in “s.” Or if you do, don’t let them own anything because making s-characters possessive is a bear. It looks strange on the page and saying it aloud gives you a lisp. The only thing worse than ending a character’s name with s is ending a character’s name with two s’s (s-es?). In Five Days in May, my main character was Princess. And when I wrote about Princess’s successes, I thought I heard a Raven knocking, knocking at my chamber door—only this and nothing more.

The bottom line in character names is simple—be intentional. Don’t pick the first name that happens to pop into your mind. This character will carry whatever name you select through the life of your story and into the hearts and minds of your readers. If you discover a name doesn’t work or is awkward in combination with another character’s name, swap it for something more suitable. Why do you think God created global change?

So where do you go to find character names? Start with the phone book. From there move on to baby-naming books. Check the internet for most popular names 20 years prior to the timeframe of your novel. Look in the Bible.

And if all else fails, put some syllables together, wallow them around in your mouth and see how they sound. You can, after all, simply make up a name. Look how well it worked out for my parents.

Write on!

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally posted to the author's blog.

NINIE HAMMON has been telling stories her whole life, starting with her first book at age 8―the gripping, suspense-filled, edge-of-your-seat saga of two bees that decided to make chocolate instead of honey. She made five copies of "Chocolate Bees" and set up a stand built with cardboard boxes in the front yard to sell them. A book and a glass of Tang (she didn't know how to make lemonade) sold for a quarter. Her grandmother bought all five copies and said, "These books will be worth a lot of money someday, when  you're a famous writer." Most of her writing life was devoted to telling true stories in a quarter-century career as a journalist. Despite winning some awards, in 2008 she decided to settle into a profession that fit as perfect as Cinderella's slipper: she started writing fiction and became a novelist.