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Breathe life into characters with the right names

What do you think of when you hear these names? Holden Caulfield, Bilbo Baggins, Jane Eyre, Hannibal Lecter, and Scarlett O’Hara.

Memorable character names help grab readers’ attention, and gripping characters become so real that readers remember them long after they read the last page of a book.

I collect names the way I collect other writing bits in my commonplace book. I wrote these down recently: Virgil Doty, Pernelle Parker, Carlyle Scoggins.

Here are a few things to think about when you’re creating character names:

Avoid similar sounding names – Especially in the beginning of your story, readers will be meeting your characters and trying to place them and the relationships. Jared, Jason and Joseph are all nice names but too many “J” names might throw off readers.

Don’t be stuck on a name. Don’t settle on a name until you’ve truly gotten to know your character. Have you noticed how some people really “fit” their names? That’s how it should be in your story world. You may find as you build out your characters that they change and their names no longer feel quite right. Names are a huge element of identity and can add depth to your story.

Regional names often reflect a story’s setting. For example, these are some distinctive Southern names: Idabel from Truman Capote’s, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” Dilsey from William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” and one of my favorite television characters — Raylan Givens, a U.S. Deputy Marshall on the show “Justified.” Names common to the western United States are Cody, Colton, and Travis.

Consider time periods. Names go through phases of popularity. In the 1970s, some of the most popular names: Jennifer, Amy, Melissa, Michelle, Jason, Brian and Kevin. If you were writing a novel set in the 1870s, you might pick from popular names Frederic, Lily, Rose, and Cora.

Don’t forget the animals. Pets need names too. Some of the most popular ones now for cats and dogs are Jack, Daisy, Lucy, Max and Bella.

Think about what it would be like if your story is read aloud? Unusual names may cause the reader to stumble and bring them out of the flow of your story.

Baby naming websites are great sources for names, including Babycenter and babynames.

How do you go about picking your characters’ names?

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I usually just know. Occasionally, like with one of the protagonists in my current WIP I saw her name and ended up coking up with a character. But for her counterpart, I knew his name the moment he walked into my head. In both cases though the name ended up summing up everything about them into one idea.

    October 24, 2011

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