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Naming Your Characters

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How do writers choose names for their characters? Every writer likely has different methods and different reasons.

I’ve realised I have certain names I get used to for a while. For a while I liked Jackson.

I had kid Jacksons and young men Jacksons and old Jacksons.

That was until a writing friend said, “Do you realise you use the name Jackson a lot?”

I hadn’t realised it and now I have a self-imposed Jackson ban.

I write a lot of fiction and am always searching for names.

I often use the phone book to look for names.

I also have a baby book of names that I sometimes use.

If I’m setting a story in another place, like a recent short story I wrote set in the Ukraine, I googled “popular Ukrainian girls’ names”.

I checked meanings and chose what I thought suited my character.

I’m not such a big fan of very meaningful names.

For example names that describe the character of the owner, names such a Sunny for a happy guy.

I do it sometimes, but not too often. It can become a bit cheesy.

If I’m writing a story set in Botswana, but for an outside audience, I will sometimes use descriptive Setswana names, but just to amuse myself.

Nothing of any significance really. Other writers put a lot of stock in choosing names with meaning.

You should have names that suit your characters though.

A tough guy called Cyril might not work.

A sensitive bloke called Butch might flop too.

You also should keep in mind that you can change the names afterwards when you are more familiar with your characters, giving them temporary names when you start.

There are some things to keep in mind:

1. Make sure you can pronounce the name

I have a story with a Mosarwa character with a Sesarwa name.

I can never read that story publically because I cannot pronounce the name. That’s bad.

2. Know your genre.

If you are writing a thriller and you think Damien is a good name for one of your characters give it a miss. Or Heathcliff in your romance.

3. Be careful of names from various eras

If you’re writing a story set in the 17th century, no one is going to buy that your characters are named Jason and Hayley.

4. Watch out for similar names

As a reader, it’s difficult to keep characters straight before you get to know them.

If you have Katrina and Katherine, you’re making it even harder for your reader.

5. Vary syllables

Don’t have all your characters named Ted, Ed, Bob, and Jo.

It will cause your readers confusion.

6. Avoid names with built in characterisation

Names such as Bertha already set up an automatic image in your reader’s mind.

Even if your character is a frumpy overweight, home-body, give her a break, and name her something else.

And Adolph? Give it a miss.

7. Keep your eyes open for names

Look around you. I often find names in the end credits of TV shows.

I steal bits and pieces from Facebook friends, changing them so no one knows.

8. Nicknames of characters can be useful

Giving your character interesting nicknames can also be useful and can help with characterisation.

They provide interesting ways to reveal relationships between characters by who uses the nickname.

When most people call her Tebogo, a certain few call her Tebby.

Who are they and why?

9. Make sure the names fits the age

Even if you’re writing a story set in present time, a 70 year old woman is not going to be called Jayla.

It’s easy to google which names were popular different years.

In Botswana, pay attention to the names you hear for various older people.

10. If you want silly, use silly names

I have a new mystery series at the literacy site, FunDza, with a detective called Lola.

I chose Lola for a reason. She is not the most adept detective and usually discovers the answer by accident.

I wanted a light sounding name. My story shortlisted for the Caine Prize, has a character called McPhineas Lata.

I wanted an odd name you would likely never hear anywhere because I wanted the character to be mythical and I wanted the story to be humorous.

Correct names can help or hinder a story so give them some attention.