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COMING UP WITH CHARACTER NAMES

March 6, 2013

             It may seem like an easy task to come up with character names for your story, whether they’re fictional or real (and you have to use fictional names to protect the innocent or avoid lawsuits). You can pull the names out of a hat, out of the air or mix and match them from a baby name book if you want. Maybe you can pull them randomly out of the phone book. Some well-known authors even run contests to publish fan names in their novels. As new writers, you probably don’t have a fan base to choose names from yet, so that option is down the road!

            Most of us, I imagine, pull them out of the air, probably inspired, like me, from random people and events around us at the time. Maybe they’re from something in our past.

            The inspiration for the name (not the actual character) Joseph “Detach” Datchuk, the main character in my Gold series, came from a guy I knew in elementary school.

            On the other hand, in that same series, I pulled Mildred Pierce out of the air. It wasn’t until almost nine years later that I learned she was the name of a very famous character in a novel from the 40’s I’ve never heard of. That was purely coincidental.

            Meleena, from my fantasy series is completely made up. To this date, I’ve never heard that name before… that I know of.

            I must make one thing very clear. These character names, even if inspired by real people, have no bearing on the characters! One has nothing to do with the other. Just to be clear, the kid I got the name Detach from in no way resembles the character in my novel in either appearance or personality. The same for Mildred Pierce or any other character I have a name for, so far at least. Maybe someday, the fan that wants to be in one of my books will get a little piece of their appearance or personality added to a character. Not much, but maybe a tiny bit as a tribute.

            I could go on and on. For you, sometimes you just hit it right and sometimes without realizing it, you nail some famous or infamous name and don’t know until someone tells you about it. As for Mildred Pierce, she’s a sidekick in the Gold series and I’m very fond of her. I have no intention of changing her name. I may throw in a comment about the famous novel but maybe not. There are probably hundreds of women named Mildred Pierce, so I don’t see changing it. It’s not like her character is named Angelina Jolie. That would be too unique to get away with.

            Another issue, and the one this article is really about is to consider similar sounding names. It came up in Meleena’s Adventures – Gods Of The Blue Mountains. The main character is Meleena. In this sequel, she’s hanging with a female Elf I’ve been calling Alinda. One of my critiquing friends pointed out that Meleena and Alinda sounded too much alike. I referred to my handy-dandy Meleena’s Adventures encyclopedia. I hadn’t alphabetized it yet, which prompted some much needed housekeeping. I have sections for names, places, creatures and things. It was enough of a sidetrack just to get through reordering the names. With that done, I went through every character name one-by-one, from both books. Since Alinda and Meleena did sound a lot alike, I had to find something unique, something that didn’t sound like any of the other common character names. It wasn’t long before I settled on Niin. There’s no other name like it. Where did I come up with it? I pulled it out of the air. I could’ve spent all day doing the same with random names but that was honestly the first one that popped into my head. No indecision, no agony or worrying. Guess I just got lucky.

            When you’re creating names for your story, similarity must be a consideration. Sound-alike names tend to confuse the reader. After a while, readers may not be able to distinguish between characters and that will weaken the impact of your prose. Each name should be different and distinctive. Alphabetizing my encyclopedia, which I should’ve done a long time ago (still have to do the other sections), helps me see the big picture. It’s especially important in fantasy where I have to make up names. I can’t be using Karl and Joe and Fred.

            In a conventional novel, you don’t want your common characters to be named Ted and Fred and Jed. Or Jan and Fran and Nan. That would drive a reader nuts and it wouldn’t be long before they’d lose track of who is who.

            There should be a distinct difference between names.

            Until next time.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2013 3:11 am

    Fred, I’ll write more about the subject when I get back the use of both hands…Good topic.

    • March 8, 2013 5:18 pm

      Felix,

      Thanks for the post. Hope to hear more from you when you get your health back. All the best!

      Fred

  2. March 7, 2013 5:46 pm

    When I began the first draft of Seven-inch Vinyl in 1996 I was working for Con Ed in NYC we had 18,000 employees citywide and required our own phone directory. That’s where most of those character names come from. – Donald Riggio author

    • March 8, 2013 5:22 pm

      Don,

      Wow! There you go! I made up the name of the Russian character in my Gold series first. Then I wondered if his last name was a real Russian name so I had to look up a Russian phone directory for Moscow to find out if his name really existed. Luckily, it did, so I was able to keep it. I THOUGHT I’d heard that name somewhere before…

      Thanks for sharing your method. Also hope you are feeling better now.

      You rock!

      Fred

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