How to Name Your Characters and Avoid Readers

Have you ever gotten stuck when it came time to name a character?

I have.  I’ve resulted to thumbing through the phone book, looking through newspapers, watching TV and just wool-gathering.  Sometimes that works.

I have to admit I’ve been taken to task for some of my character’s names.  Sometimes I’ve backed down and changed them, sometimes a name seemed just too good to pass up.  The main character from my novel FIVE, Ray Kurtz, for example, took some heat from “Heart of Darkness” fans, but I stand by it anyway. 

Are there rules for names in novels?  Well, yes, but nothing really hard and fast.  For example, having the names of all of your characters start with “J” is not a great idea.  Why?  Despite the time, effort and love we pour into our work, not all of our readers will have the patience to figure out that Jamie, Jan, Joe, Jon,  and John are different characters.  They’ll get lost.

You can make up names for your characters, but consider this, how many friends to you have with truly unique names?  …and, how often do they all get together in the same room for tea and scones?

Cute names can be a problem, too.  Robert “Rob” Banks, for instance.  Or one of my old favorite, Helen Fire…  clever yes, good for a serious character?  Not on your tintype.

And this, of course, brings us to SPACE ALIENS.   OK, I got it.  Aliens from another planet are not likely to have names like “John Jones” (with apologies to DCs Martian Manhunter).  But come on, names like K’Lktz’P’B’Frum-mptlla cannot be pronounced by your readers—unless they too are space aliens, and perhaps related to K’Lktz’P’B’Frum-mptlla. 

Image: forums.superherohype.com

But wait, Doctor Scott, you say, if I can’t use cute and clever names like those, and I can’t use all names starting with the same letter, and I can’t be truly alien, what’s a writer to do?

One thing you could do is to use any of the following excellent name generators:

These are just four of the many sites that offer this help.  I like the first one, The Seventh Sanctum best, because it is massive and massively useful.

Then, again, you could just say, “What th’ heck?” and go with K’Lktz’P’B’Frum-mptlla

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5 responses to “How to Name Your Characters and Avoid Readers

  1. Robinson Stone – even the name gives readers goosebumps.

  2. Dr. Seuss invented words, but sprinkled clues around
    Readers quickly picked up both their meaning and sound
    In contrast, when writers create names with no vowels
    We may abandon their books with moans, grumbles, and howls

  3. When you are trying to come up with names for the alien flora and fauna(and all points between!) of some alien planet, you can do worse than point out that the first survey was written up by a fan of Mr. Geisel.

    And, “Character Name Generator?” With a name like that, how realistic are my hopes that it will generate imaginative names 😛 ? Beats LeadCharacterM51 and LoveInterestF43 and RedHerringH4, though. Those filler names will kill you if you fail to catch them all before sending out the manuscript… Better Bert Beastwrestler, Sandy Sweetweather and The Lady Dante Amaretto.

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