Naming Our Characters: Part 3


Giving our characters suitable names is of utmost importance. Can you imagine Count Dracula with any other name? Scarlett O’Hara?

The following is an excerpt from Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them, pp. 26–28.


How perfect are the names Rhett Butler, J. Alfred Prufrock, Jane Eyre? Cat Ballou? Hannibal Lecter?

Back to the Internet again. It’s possible to search for:

most popular boy name [year]

most popular girl name [year]

You can search for individual years and also for decades and eras.

names + 1950s


names 1950s

For you computer newbies, change how you word your questions/phrases if you are having trouble finding the right information. But the more detail you use in your search string, the fewer hits you’ll get. Also notice that I have not said “boy’s name” with the apostrophe s. What the search engine looks for is the stem of the word, not its meaning. There’s no need to capitalize any words, either.

Since we want to spare our readers from any difficulty following where our stories lead, how about a couple of suggestions for naming your people. The eye doesn’t always read the entire word when we are reading something. (Try proof­reading your own stuff to see how true that is.) Giving several characters — especially recurring characters — names that start with the same letter can cause your reader to work harder than we’d intended. We want them to enjoy their journey through our world. If you have Harold, Henry, Hugh, Herb, and Hulk, your reader will have trouble remembering each of their story threads. I’m almost at the end of a 1072-page novel by one of my favourite authors and he has named two of his characters Pete! One’s a good guy and one’s a bad guy. Talk about con­fusing! This jars. This ejects us from the world we’re hoping to escape into when we open a book or sit down to a movie.

Avoid names ending with s, like Charles, Hobbs, James, Ulysses, or Frances. And yes, all these names require the ’s possessive — Jesus does not, nor does the historical Ulysses, but an Hispanic character named Jesús would need it. Please have pity on anybody who might be reading your work out loud if they have to refer to a modern Ulysses’s oasis. And what about anyone wishing to visit the modern Ulysseses’ family home? Save yourself grief and don’t have any of your characters using names ending in s — first, or last.

I mention names in this “Let’s Get Started” chapter so you’ll pay attention to what you’re calling your guys and gals at the very outset. Once you’ve gotten to know and love (or hate) your people, it’s a heart-breaking task to change their names later on. Avoid that mistake in the first place so it won’t feel like you’re saying goodbye to anyone you’ve gotten attached to.

Name-your-baby books which give historical and ethnic origins for names are an excellent resource. I once made the mistake of giving a Hindu character a Muslim first name and will be forever grateful to the person who pointed it out to me.

End of Excerpt

Yes, some of this is similar information to earlier posts but, as writing colleague and good friend, Sharyn Heagle, author of A Clear Range of Vision, often says: “Writers don’t read.” So consider what I’ve repeated as a slap upside the head and forgive me for it.

The lists of names you will discover almost always provide meanings for the names. Take advantage of this and use them for your good guys and bad guys. Perhaps give your antagonist (bad guy) the least popular name for the year he was born.

One last note about names, and I don’t think I need to explain why: Don’t use the name of someone close to you. A future post will go more deeply into using a friend or relative in your fiction in the first place.

Next post May 30.

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them:

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction):


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