A name by any other name would be a giant pain in the…

One aspect of writing that readers may not realize is a huge pain in the … um, neck, is naming characters. It seems like it would be an obvious and easy thing, doesn’t it? Certainly easier than figuring out a plot, point of view and other big-picture writing things.

You’d think.

But for many writers, some who’ve written about it in this space in the past, naming characters takes up way too much brain space.

Think about it as a reader. You’re being introduced to all sorts of people, as well as a setting, clues, a plot and more. It takes a lot to remember who is who. The wrong names can have a big negative impact on reader experience.

My cats Milo and Penny are not named after anybody or based on any human beings. They may appear in future books. I mostly just put this in because I know people like photos of animals, and I think my cats are pretty cute.

Before we get started: None of this applies to naming animals in books. In my Bernie O’Dea books, her cats are named Billy and Becky, after my twin brother and sister, and Poopoo, because I like the name for a cat. Her dog is Dubya, because when I started writing the book George W. Bush had just been president and that was a nickname for him. I didn’t name the dog out of any love for Bush, but because the owner of the dog was a fairly repellent fella from Texas. You can name pets whatever you want — just don’t, by all that’s holy, put quotation marks around the pet’s name.

As far as human characters go, though, there are some rules of thumb that almost every writer understands and follows:

Don’t give characters names that look or sound too much alike (Angie and Andy, for instance).

Don’t have major characters whose names start with the same letter. I did do this in my first Bernie O’Dea mystery novel, Cold Hard News, but it was for a reason — another character gets the two mixed up and it has an impact on the plot. I tried to make sure readers understood clearly that Rusty and Ray were two separate people, and even had others in the book comment on the name simililarity. I still got complaints from readers.

Don’t make names too long or hard to pronounce, even though people are reading it, not speaking it (we’re talking about printed books here, which all books start out as — if your book becomes an audio book, then that’s one less problem for the producer to sort out). My protagonist, Bernie (short for Bernadette) O’Dea originally was Guilfoyle. My publisher didn’t like the length of the name — it would end up adding pages to the book. So I checked out last names for County Clare, Ireland, where my great-grandparents were from, and picked the shortest one I could find that didn’t sound stupid.

Oh, that reminds me. If your character is female, but she has a male nickname, or vice-versa, establish that as soon as possible so readers are picturing the correct gender. I can always tell when someone hasn’t read my books but pretends to because they refer to Bernie as “he.”

If it’s been a few chapters between when the character appeared and it’s not one readers are used to, a little reminder of who the person is goes a long way. Maybe Henry Gilbert is  introduced as a plumber. Three chapters later, the protagonist sees him in the supermarket:

“She saw Henry Gilbert comparing soup can labels, and dodged down the other aisle. While she’d spoken to the plumber about the clogged drain the week before, she now realized that the clog was brain matter and possibly some bones, and didn’t want him to come over anyway.”

While it may seem like the phrase “the plumber” isn’t needed in the sentence, there’s no harm throwing it in to remind readers why Henry would have any interest in her drains. On the other hand, you don’t want to hit readers over the head with re-explaining things. A subtle hint is all that’s needed. At some point, the obligation is on them to turn off “The Bachelor” or whatever and pay attention to what they’re reading. (That’s a passage made up on the spur of the moment, by the way. Don’t scour my books trying to find the reason that stuff would be in Bernie O’Dea’s drain —  while she’s not great at housekeeping, that’s not a problem she’s ever had.)

I also have some of my own rules for naming characters. These are my own rules. I’m not criticizing anyone who doesn’t follow them or saying every writer should. That said, some of you may find these helpful:

Don’t give a character the name, even just a first name, of someone you know — no matter how much you deny it, the real person is going to think the character is “based on” them. If you do name a character after someone you know as a nod to that person (Hi, Carol!) be sure to let them know in advance and explain it’s not exactly like them, but inspired by them.

If you have a character who is loosely based on someone, but it’s not a friendly nod, but rather a negative characterization, don’t give the character a name that’s a poorly disguised variation of the real person’s name. For instance, say the real person is Henry Gilbert, don’t make the character Gilbert Henry. Or don’t make the real John Miller a character named Sean Diller. Get it? Not that I would ever base a negative character on a real person. 🙂

Don’t use only bland, generic names. I read a mystery novel once where I realized no first or last name had any hint of ethnicity. It really bugged me. Think of all the people you know in your neighborhood or town — how many different types of names are there? One or two in a book is fine. Generic names can be hard to remember and they also don’t reflect the world most of us live in.

To enlarge on the previous rule, I also research the area the book takes place to get ideas for local names. This is as easy as doing a Google search for something like “family names in Franklin County, Maine.” Or an obituary search. Or a white pages (phone book) search. I also wander around local cemeteries and make note of last names, as well as first names.

On the other hand, don’t give a character a ridiculous name that they’ll have to keep explaining to people in the book, unless it’s part of the plot. Otherwise, it’s a distraction and waste of ink and paper. I heard about a reporter once who was nailed for making up people in stories (most journalists don’t do this, BTW), because the names he used where all just really weird.

Don’t give characters joke Dickenensian names. An example would be giving a character with a big nose the last name Schnozz. It sets a cartoony tone. Unless that’s what you’re trying to achieve.

Try to keep the variety of names a character is referred to at a minimum, unless it’s part of the plot. If Henry is also called Butch, Junior, Lovey, Hank and Hal, readers are going to get confused and have an even harder time remembering who he is. This isn’t to say that someone can’t have a pet name for a character, just make it clear that’s what’s going on.

Don’t give a name to a minor character who is referred to once in the book and then never appears again unless there’s a good reason. If the waiter has a name, it signals to readers he’s someone they should know. If he never shows up again, it’s just an unnecessary distraction. My personal rule is that if a character appears three times, they get a name.

Don’t give a different character in later book in a series the same name as a character in an earlier book. Readers will remember. I’ve never done this, but I was binge-reading an author who used the same name three times in three different books, and it pulled me right out of the story.

My mom frequently laments that books should have a character guide in the front, so readers can consult it when they forgot who someone is. I know some writers do this, and some have success at it. I never will. It’s fraught with too many spoilers and other issues, and would be just one more writing pain in the … um, neck.

Sorry Mom!

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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9 Responses to A name by any other name would be a giant pain in the…

  1. Kate Flora says:

    Great post, Maureen! I am struggling right now with two character names in torrent WIP—Jeremy Bartlett and Barrett Thompson, and can’t decide which one to change. I have found that often a book won’t flow until I get main character’s names right. Also that sometimes characters show up already named.

  2. John Clark says:

    For me, naming characters is great fun. I’m often tempted to create characters whose names are plays on descriptive words like Anne Thrachs, or Chanda Lier. Given that I tend to write stuff with a dark theme, odd names work well.

  3. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    I have a cast of characters in the front of my books for ME–I keep forgetting names, LOL.

  4. Becky Sue Epstein says:

    This is a great topic!
    (I once actually stopped reading a series because everyone had bland names that were impossible to distinguish.)

  5. katfast1 says:

    I find some names have emotional meaning. For me Luther, or Luke just must be a good guy and so is James; Bruce is a flirt or ladies’ man; Annie is innocent and so is May; Vera not so nice. I don’t trust Paul or Ron. Mary can be anyone you want her to be.

    There are other names I’ve never liked, just a gut feel negative that is hard to explain (but maybe I should examine!)

  6. Sandra Neily says:

    That was great Maureen……and so generous of you. I am copying parts to keep in my CRAFT folder. Readers of my first novel made it clear I needed to reintroduce someone if they did not show up with regularity. They had to go back and figure out who someone was…… so your plumber message is…Right On! Thanks!

  7. Don Blinebry says:

    Mixing and matching the names of kids you went to school with will generate some interesting and unique results. If life has pulled you away from where you went to school, even better. Also, think of 2 or 3 words that define your character (brave, brilliant, etc.) Now, put those words into a thesaurus and look at the list of synonyms. A name might very well suggest itself. Great read, Maureen. Thanks for sharing.

  8. susanvaughan says:

    Terrific post! Great ideas I’d never thought of. I do keep an alphabetical list of characters in each book, so I don’t have the Andy & Amy issue.

  9. My novels are set in Southern California and I will Google something like “common Latino surnames” to get away from Garcia or Lopez or … well, you know. There’s dozens of sites that suggest “baby names” for any ethnicity. Many even give the meanings of the names. I started my WIP with one name for the main character that was just so perfect, I just loved writing about her. Until I realized that it was the same name, spelled the same way, as a woman who had stalked me a decade or so ago. Very unpleasant woman. I tried, but I just couldn’t keep using it. Dang. Took me quite a while to get used to another one. Anyway, my beta readers love her new name, so it’s just my problem. I’d like to add that I’m sure we’ve all heard the most common complaint about Russian novels: “Why does every character have at least three names, plus a nickname and a title?!!”

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