When to change a character’s name

If you observe Sukkot, may you have a joyous holiday!

Rare is the writer who’s never changed even one character’s name. It happens to just about everyone, growing to think of a character by one name and then suddenly realizing that name doesn’t work, no longer appeals to us, or just doesn’t have the kind of standout flair needed for a protagonist. Here are some of the reasons I’ve changed characters’ names, reasons also applicable to many other people.

It’s not culturally/linguistically accurate

This was a big issue with my Russian and Estonian characters until 2011. Even after I knew better, I engaged in some powerful cognitive dissonance to justify keeping English names. I innocently copied what I saw, and then just became so emotionally attached to these names. It was rather selective attachment, since I changed some names in 1996, like Alexis, Anne, and Kathie, yet kept holding onto names like Margaret, Amy, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Peter.

This is why it’s so important to use accurate names for characters in a culture outside of your own. Otherwise, you risk younger or less-informed writers copying you and assuming those are real names in that language. The entire world doesn’t speak English, and generally only certain people in reigning families went by non-native forms of their names. I only kept a few non-Russian nicknames, and found plausible reasons.

This also explains why my Jewish characters of oldest vintage have German, Dutch, and Polish surnames instead of names like Katz, Cohen, Kaganowicz, Lipschitz, and Rosenfeld. Many of them also have normal, secular names, or common Bible names just as likely to be used by Christians. However, this isn’t completely inaccurate, and I like how it makes my characters appear like regular members of their home cultures. I don’t want insular characters with shtetl names like Faige, Shternie, Avrumie, and Mottie.

It’s not historically accurate and is anachronistic

When I was younger, I naïvely believed the names I knew had always been used, either altogether or on girls instead of boys. Therefore, I created a few minor female characters named Ashley in my Atlantic City books. It’s one thing to have an outlier within the realm of plausibility, like a Jennifer born in 1940 or a Liam born in 1984, but there are some names which just weren’t used on girls prior to very recently, as well as names which simply didn’t exist. Either change the name entirely, or find a close-enough-sounding substitute.

The two oldest sisters in my long-shelved but to-be-resurrected 18th century series were originally named Marionetta (nicknamed Jinx) and Marilyn. Neither of those names existed in that century, so I’ll have to change them when I finally dust them off. Since the third, much-younger sister’s name is Labyrinth (called Lady), I found the perfect new names and reasons for them. Their mother is so enamoured of Greek mythology, she names all of her children after rather obscure Greek deities, including all the children she lost between the former Marilyn and Labyrinth. Jinx’s real name will be Iynx (pronounced like Inks), and Marilyn will become Myrina. Jinx is merely an alternate Romanized form of Iynx.

You want a more standout name for a protagonist or important character

A lot of the names in my hiatused or planned soft sci-fi/futuristic books have names which aren’t standout enough for a main character. There’s nothing wrong with names like Casey, Terri, or Shelly, but they just seem kind of “there” when it comes to an important character. The average reader is more likely to remember a character with a distinctive name one doesn’t encounter every day. I changed Casey to Arcadia, and will change the names of Terri and her two sisters to Esperanto names, since they live in a large Esperantist commune.

You’ve already used the name on more than one other character

You can get away with using the same name on multiple characters in the same series or story (as long as they don’t really appear together or go by different nicknames or titles), as well as using the same name on characters in different books, but it can feel kind of unoriginal or wrong to use the same name too many times.

I kind of reached my saturation point with the name Victoria. There are two Viktoriyas in my Russian novels (the elderly Mrs. Yeltsina and Katrin’s whipper-snapper little sister), and a Viktoria (Vikki) in my Atlantic City books. Therefore, I no longer want to have a Vikki and a Victoria Jane (V.J.) in two more books, despite those being the planned original names for those characters.

You just don’t like it anymore

You should never feel bound to keep using a name you no longer like or have grown to find boring. The unlikely Tsaritsa in my alternative history was originally named Varvara (Varya), but changed to Arkadiya, and the Tsesarevich’s name was changed from Stepan to Yaroslav (Yarik).

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6 comments on “When to change a character’s name

  1. When writing historical books or ones based in another country, it is really important to get the names right. Someone will notice if you don’t.
    I’ve never had to change a name, but I’ve had to work hard with minor characters to be sure their names didn’t begin with the same letter as the main character.

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  2. Arlee Bird says:

    I see your point, but so far this is something that I haven’t faced.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

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  3. Chrys Fey says:

    d points! I’ve never had to completely change a character’s name before, but I have changed the spelling on a couple so readers would be able to pronounce them correctly.

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  4. Ed Hoornaert says:

    Although it isn’t logical, sometimes the right name solidifies a character in my imagination. In my science fiction trilogy, the name Tompa Lee instantly felt right. In the same series, I worked hard at variations for the main alien species before finding that Shon Wod Zee felt ‘right’–three words so people wouldn’t add accented syllables.

    I’m not usually so lucky, though, and many characters undergo more than one name.

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  5. I feel like I always change my characters names as I go…like in my WIP I know I’ll have to soon because I have SO many names that start with “J”. I do like to nail down my MC before I begin though. I find I can’t write her until I know her name.

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