What do names tell us about characters?
January 16, 2015
THE CHOICES AUTHORS MAKE in naming their characters is, for me, a pet peeve.
Some annoyances that irritate me, related to writing have become subjects of a newfound obsession. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve simply quit some books before I reach the midpoint if the indiscretions become intolerable. [Other pet peeves will be subjects of future blogs, such as verbs that end with “ing.”]
While I’ve addressed this topic before, it’s time I did so again, with more specifics.
- In general, authors must decide early on if they want the names of their characters to have been chosen as an obvious
description of his or her personality or role in the story. Should the heroine be named, “Mary Sunshine?”
- Consider your genre. Do you want your readers to discern the identity of the villain in a murder mystery “whodunit” faster than you can say, “Jack Robinson?” If that is the case, choose a name like, “Snidely Whiplash.”
- Secondary characters are important, too. After the first two items on my list have been addressed, apply the same thought process to the minor characters.
- What about nicknames? Many real life people have nicknames and there’s no reason fictitious characters can’t either. Nicknames are handy topics for dialog as long as they aren’t overworked. (How many times does “Hawk” Barger have to explain the story behind his nickname?) Here’s an idea, let the character’s nickname become an essential factor in moving the plot forward. But remember to make sure the reader knows the given name.
- Names considered “foreign” in a major market need explanations. If you plan on North America being your major market, or at least a significant market, consider the ease of a reader dealing with what might be considered a “difficult” name (many foreign names as well as futuristic/fantasy names come to mind–although Barbarella and Smirnoff work).
- Consider the reading level of your market. Thirty-five per cent of Americans either cannot read, or read below a fifth grade level. People who read novels in the U.S.A. read on the ninth grade level. Long names with lots of syllables or hard to pronounce and remember names will likely cause the reader to quit your book sooner than later.
- Recent studies have determined the attention span for Americans has dropped from twelve minutes to eight. Easy names that flow and roll off the tongue help readers of any reading level.
- Avoid stereotypes unless there’s no better choice. In some situations, stereotypes work fine and are acceptable. It isn’t politically correct. As much as I rebel against being “PC,” use of stereotypical names may hurt sales.
- Use famous names with discretion. “Charles Manson” wouldn’t be a creative name for a bad guy—it’s already taken.
- An inventive use of colors for names can be found in Joseph Heller’s book, Something Happened. In a corporate setting, one of his characters devises a color wheel with the names of his co-workers and who’s afraid of whom (Brown is afraid of Green who’s afraid of Gray, etc..) Colorful names can be fun, but be judicious. Remember, Reservoir Dogs’ entire ensemble was named for colors.
Authors should fear not that I will take off a star from the rating if I review their books. As I said, I simply might stop reading and not post a review. Beware, other reviewers may share my concern for names and not be as forgiving.
Remember, the most recognized name in fiction was chosen by the author because he thought it to be boring. It was Bond, James Bond.
Please click the book cover image to read more about FCEtier and his novels.