Fun post here at Anne R Allen’s blog: Naming Fictional Characters: 10 Tips to Avoid Pitfalls
Ooh, pitfalls! This is a great way to sell the post. First, I just thought of a handful of characters with TERRIBLE names that just about killed the story,** and second, I instantly want to know what Anne R Allen sees as specific pitfalls where authors go wrong.
Well, she starts by explaining some methods she uses to name her characters:
For me, spam is turning out to be one of the best places to find unique names. Every week I cull a few from my email and blog spam folders. … And I love the creativity of the three-first-names catfishers who try to friend me on Facebook. I’m using the catfisher name “Brownie David Jack” in my current WIP, Catfishing in America.
Oh, that’s funny! An actual use for spam! Who knew? This is making me think of the fake guys who try to get women to Friend them on Facebook. Sexy Older Guy In Sexy Pose, with no posts and no photos, but a friend in common because somebody got suckered into hitting “friend.” I used to get quite a lot of those fake friend requests, but maybe Facebook has tweaked something, because the Sexy Older Guy Friend Request seems to have become less common in the past year or so. Or maybe I just haven’t been on Facebook enough to get targeted lately.
This is not yet a post about naming pitfalls, though. Oh, here we go: But beware. There can be pitfalls. Okay, let’s see what those are …
a) Google your characters’ names.
I have to confess, I never think of doing this. Let me see. Well, it looks like nearly all the hits for “Ezekiel Korte” comes back to my character. Whew!
Anyway, this is only going to matter for contemporary and contemporary-ish settings, of course. Allen does provide a persuasive anecdote about why it’s sometimes unfortunate to accidentally name your character after someone with the same name and a too-similar background.
b) Choose names that fit the character.
Good advice! It’s just that the author’s feeling about what name suits the character may not agree with readers’ perceptions of the fitness of that name. I don’t know what to do about that except cross my fingers that readers will like the name “Ezekiel Korte” as much as I do.
This is making me think of someone explaining — Craig, was that you? — that Tolkien meant to call Aragorn “Trotter” rather than “Strider” for an astonishingly long time after developing the character. THERE is an example of a name (nickname, whatever) that totally does not fit the character AT ALL.
I will add here that Terry Pratchett’s character names absolutely do not work for me. I mean, Sam Vimes, sure. But I hate, hate, hate that he saddled Carrot with the name Carrot. That character is too serious a character to deserve that stupid name.
My advice is, when in doubt, do NOT give your character a deliberately stupid name. And always be in doubt about that.
c) Choose names that begin with different letters.
Yes! Also, we need an alphabet with more than 26 letters. It’s just impossible to stick to this rule throughout an entire long series, however excellent a rule it may be.
Worse still, it’s easy to introduce a very minor character without worrying about this. His name is only going to occur a handful of times, so it’s fine! Then, oops, he turns into a more important character than you realized in Book Three and suddenly you have a problem.
That’s what happened with Cassandra and Carissa in the Black Dog world. I had no idea how bad a name choice “Carissa” was going to be. Hence declaring that she’s going to call herself Riss. I mean, what else was I supposed to do?
If you start names with the same letter, you can cheat — if you think ahead — by making the names dramatically different lengths or by giving one a lot of tall letters and the other only short letters, or both. If one ends in a tall letter and the other in a short letter, that helps. But yes, I agree, it’s nice if you can make it through the book without ever giving two characters names that start with the same letter.
d) Avoid generic names.
Yes, probably a good idea to pick only names that aren’t in the top fifty baby names of the moment.
e) Choose names that are creative but pronounceable.
Well, I do my best. Sometimes. Not with the griffin names, of course. I think nearly all the names in the Tuyo world are pretty easy to pronounce. I’ve had just one person comment about “Inhejeriel.” Actually, I think that’s very pronounceable. Just line the syllables up in a row and spit them out. I was going for a somewhat Tolkien-Elvish look there, that’s all. I know the other Tarashana names are harder. But they only occur just a tiny handful of times. If we ever go back into the starlit lands, I may well regret giving them such difficult names. I guess I could come up with character names that were in the same basic theme but easier to recognize and pronounce, if necessary.
My mother asked where I came up with the names in the Tenai trilogy and I actually remember even though I wrote this story so long ago: I have a handy handbook of the mammals of Borneo. That’s where almost all the character and place names came from, usually with a letter or two changed.
f) Name only Featured Players, not Walk-Ons.
It’s a tough call, deciding who’s important enough to get a name and who isn’t. I don’t know if I always call it correctly.
Allen offers a handful more tips, with a bonus link to genre name generators — click through to the post if you’re interested — I will add that I had to laugh at the fantasy names. I wouldn’t have used any of those! But if I were really stuck, that would be a way to get started.
There’s also an important bonus tip that I can fervently second:
Bonus tip: Run a final search-and-replace if you change a character’s name.
Absolutely! But! If you do a find-and-replace, be AWARE THAT YOU CAN SCREW UP RANDOM WORDS THAT WAY.
My personal favorite — not a name — was when I did a find-and-replace to replace “arrow” with “bolt” because I changed bows to crossbows partway through the story. “Arrow” is not a piece of very many words, but it does happen. I suddenly had spbolts fluttering here and there through the pages of the story…
The other times to run a search on a character’s name:
–You are replacing that character with a different character. You better get the replacement complete or you will be super embarrassed later.
–You are removing a character from the story. Again, you have to get every. single. instance. of that character out of the story. It can be stunningly difficult to get them all. Always do a find. Never rely on your own reading skills to do this kind of task.
** Pug in Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Saga. I mean … seriously … Pug? There has never, in the entire history of epic fantasy, been an epic fantasy character with a worse name.
By all means, prove me wrong by dropping your contender for “worst ever epic fantasy name in the comments.