Choose wisely when naming your fictional characters

JP McLean

The names you give your characters can truly make or break your novel, so consider these factors when doling out monikers.

by JP McLean

In his famous Romeo and Juliet soliloquy, Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?”

Quite a lot, as it turns out. I don’t have children, so the only names I’ve bestowed are on my fictional characters and my dogs. Happily, my choices have yet to be challenged (at least by the dogs).

Still, it’s important to find a good fit between the character and the name you choose. A name invokes an image in a reader’s mind. The way the name is spelled, how it rolls off the tongue, how it looks visually on a page—all these things add nuance to the character.

There are many elements that influence a name choice:

The era in which the story is set: Consider that Zeus and Apollo are now names reserved primarily for pets (the gods would not be pleased). The most popular names of any decade are readily available online.

The gender of the character, whether male, female, or gender variant: consider Taylor, Charlie, Emerson.

The location within the country: if your characters are in the southern U.S., they may have uniquely southern names like Gunner and Knox, or Dixie and Hattie.

The personality of the character: Are they a no-nonsense, one-syllable Jane or Bill, or a complicated, three-syllable Abigail or Joshua? Is your character a wallflower or minor character you don’t want to draw attention to? Plain names such as June or Joe slide under the radar. If your character is the serious type, they may choose Judith over Judy, or Theodore over Teddy.

Is your character a no-nonsense, one-syllable Jane or Bill, or a complicated, three-syllable Abigail or Joshua?

Age also plays a role. Younger characters might use a nickname, like Billy for William or Caddie for Caroline. Sometimes, nicknames stick throughout adulthood, and sometimes they’re used ironically: Stretch for a shorter person, Tiny for a larger person.

The entire cast of characters must be considered: Mix it up so the names don’t all start with the same few letters of the alphabet or don’t all have the same number of syllables.

To help readers differentiate between characters, it’s important the names don’t look or sound too much alike. As in Abe and Abigail. Or Emery and Emelynn (yeah, that was one of my mistakes: Emery’s name got changed to Avery).

Writers also need to consider the nationality of the characters. Does your cast reflect the mix of people you’d see in your neighborhood? In the grocery stores and libraries? If not, fix it. You can find lists online of names by nationality.

A resource I use all the time is the local telephone book. The flimsy paper books aren’t as prevalent or thick as they once were, but they’re rich in interesting names. Best of all, these are the names of people of all nationalities who live in your neighborhood.

The best part about finding the perfect name for your character is that the name does some of the work for you in defining the character’s role and personality. Names have connotations, so it’s important to make the most of them. And even if your fictional children hate the names you’ve given them, they’re not likely to disown you for your choices.

Editor’s note: this article was previously published on The Horror Tree.

JP (Jo-Anne) McLean is a bestselling author of urban fantasy and supernatural thrillers that readers call addictive, smart, and fun. She is a 2021 finalist for the Chanticleer Paranormal Award for Supernatural Fiction, and the Wishing Shelf Book Award for Adult Fiction. Her work has won a Readers’ Favorite Award, a Gold Literary Titan medal, and honorable mentions from the Whistler Independent Book Awards and the Victoria Writers’ Society. JP is a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business and makes her home on the coast of British Columbia.

Connect with her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

You can also find Jo-Anne on BookBub and Goodreads.

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