Names, Part 2

Character names can be used to create associations. This is something to work on long after you’ve solved your story problems. If you don’t know what I mean, start with Names, Part 1. If you’re past that, read on.

Consider first your setting. Names should be appropriate to the time and place. Girls named Jordan and Madison were far less common a hundred years ago. In 1913, Elizabeth, Hazel, and Henry would have a more likely sounding adventure than would Dillon, Kayden and Jayden. Census data is great for this, and Google is your friend in that regard. There are also ways to look up surnames by ethnicity, which makes things really interesting.

Consider then the way we feel about names. Homer and Homer are radically different. Which association is stronger for readers today?  Genius storyteller or hog-shaped buffoon?

Think outside of cultural references and to our shared associations. Pretty girls are rarely named Agatha or Helga. Sexy fellows aren’t often Sidney or Seymour. In fiction, strong men get strong, sharp names: Mark, Kurt, or Rick. Consonants that punch you in the teeth. Sensitive, sweetheart men get softer sounds, less aggressive consonants: Ben, Ryan, Dan.  Cute girls get names that end in “ie” or “ine” sounds, to give you the impression of softness, harmlessness, the same way we name pets that we want to cuddle.

Consider the source of a name. If your heroine has a Persian name and your story is set in Canada in the 1840’s, where did it come from? We are all named by our parents; did one of her parents come from the Middle East? Did her parents travel, or were they especially learned?

My own name is wonky. I’m not of Slavic descent. My mom was in a bakery and overheard a little girl talking to her doll- the doll’s name was Danika. In the late 70’s, there was a huge push for more “original” names. There was a divergence in attitudes from traditional or common names from the past. This is the source- cultural attitudes support the “character” of me having a semi-wonky name. If I was writing the fiction of my life, I wouldn’t use my own name. The support for that name in that story is weak, and it would lead to the next point I’m about to make. I know this because I have to explain my name constantly. CONSTANTLY.


If at any point, you write a bit where a character explains the source of their name, its pronunciation, or apologizes for their name being weird, roll your shit back. What is the benefit to the story here? Unless the plot is going to hinge on the pronunciation of that name, dump it. Your story won’t suffer if Danika becomes Danielle (a much more common name in the late 70’s, and almost impossible to mispronounce).

Your ego may be suffering right now. You might protest. Just stop. Unless it serves your story, it has to go. No matter what. It’s the Word. It’s the Truth. Consider it a commandment.

“But I want my characters to be memorable!”

Then write memorable characters. The name isn’t what makes a character stick with you. The character behind it does. A memorable character will elevate a “boring” name. So many heroes don’t sound like much of anything; Harry, Bruce, Jack, John. And yet, the name becomes iconic simply because the hero is an icon. It’s the writing we remember, not the name.

This is again, about fear. Leave the cheap, silly tricks behind. You can write memorable characters without them. Don’t be afraid. Keep writing.

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