The Importance of Character Names

I’ve been a name nerd for a long time, and have only become even more of a name nerd since the ascendance of the Internet. It’s so much easier to find a plethora of names these days. Gone are the days I had to find foreign names in my dad’s old 1965 set of encyclopedia or look in a pamphlet of baby names my mother had when she was pregnant with me in 1979 (many of them with erroneous meanings).

If you’re a writer, it’s very important to pick the right names for your characters. Personally, my taste in names strongly tends towards the classical eccentric and classical unusual, but I like to vary it up. It wouldn’t be believable if all of my characters had names in the lower reaches of the Top 1000. However, it also wouldn’t make for a very believable (or well-dated) book if most of the characters have very common, popular, trendy names.

One of the pieces of advice in the late Olga Litowinsky’s Writing and Publishing Books for Children in the 1990s was to name your characters after your friends’ children, and to use popular names from that generation. I couldn’t disagree more. First, that assumes you’re writing in a contemporary, American setting, and second, that’s a surefire way to make your book feel dated in another generation.

Won’t a reader be more likely to remember a character with a name like Justine, Octavia, Felix, or Wolfram than Jack, Chris, Caitlin, or Hannah? There’s nothing wrong with those names, but for an important character, I feel it’s important to have a name that’s more than just “there.” It’s why I changed the name of the protagonist of my hiatused soft sci-fi Bildungsroman from Casey to Arcadia, and why I’m going to change the name of the protagonist of my hiatused speculative fiction/dystopia-esque book from Terri.

Few things pull me out of a book (or movie or tv show) faster than a writer who tried to predate naming trends. It’s important to look at name popularity charts, so you don’t have a character born in, say, 1995 with a name that didn’t start seriously charting till 2005, or give a character’s parent a name that only appeared in this generation. For historical, it’s doubly-important you don’t try to predate naming trends. I can’t take you seriously if you’re giving your 19th century characters 21st century trend names like Ayden, Jaden, Nevaeh, and Hailey.

If you’re writing about a different culture and/or country, you can still use lesser-used names, but at the same time, you shouldn’t pick names that look too foreign to a Westerner. If your novel is set in Poland, that doesn’t mean you have to give your characters names that look hard to pronounce for the average non-Pole, like Lucjusz or Wojciecha.

As I’ve spoken about before, I accidentally used some anachronistic names in my first Russian novel. Some of the names I used were only invented after the October Revolution. Thankfully, the only important character affected was one of Lyuba’s stepsisters, and the invented name Dinera is very close to the real (albeit rarely-used) name Dinara. I recently found a wonderful Russian-language naming site (way more extensive than Behind the Name), and it specifies which names are old and which are new.

Some of the “new” names I recognize as the bizarre invented early Soviet-era names, while others I recognize as names imported from neighboring republics (like Bagrat), and others still I recognize as names that existed in Russian but just weren’t so common till the 20th century (like Alina and Alisa). And then there are a few names that are obvious Russianized versions of Anglo names, which wouldn’t have been used till very recently.

Finally, if your character does have a name that’s a little unusual for his or her era or culture, you should make clear why, and not make it so out of the pale of plausibility. For example, this is the explanation given by my important secondary character Sonya for her older daughter’s name:

“Yes, her full name’s Mikhaíla.  I know it’s a very unusual name in our language, but my husband really wanted his brother Mikhaíl to have a namesake.”

But if you find a name wouldn’t be plausible, beyond being just rare or outside of a given culture, sometimes you just have to change it. I had two minor characters named Ashley in my Atlantic City books, before I realized that name was male-only in the 1930s, when these characters would’ve been born. I’ve also since written in that my Cinnimin’s hated older sister Stacy’s real name is Eustacia, after a great-grandmother, to explain why a girl born in 1928 would have a name that wasn’t given to girls for a few more decades.

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3 thoughts on “The Importance of Character Names

  1. I have a writing friend who is fanatical about his choice of names. Thing is, he is brilliant in his final selections. He proves it’s worth the time investment to find one “just so” . I like giving a lot of thought to names too– that they reflect the time period and the personality.

    I passed this article on to him because it will make his little name-nerd heart leap with joy!

    Like

  2. I’m in LOVE. My soul mate. Names…I’m the biggest name nerd around, even owning my pets for a couple of weeks, testing name after name, before deciding on ones that fit their personalities – it’s that important.

    I did an article, “The Importance of Being Inigo,” on this same topic. Nothing is more disappointing than a GREAT story made ordinary by thoughtless name choices. And choose ones that make sense…just calling something by a weird name thinking, “Diffenpomper! What a great name!” won’t fly if the story doesn’t warrant it…no matter how good it is…because, now that I think of it, I like that word, Diffenpomper. Hands off. LOL!

    Great post…I’ll be visiting often. Oh…I’m Julie’s name-crazed friend mentioned above…and it did make my name-nerd heart leap!

    Like

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