Anyone in the teaching profession knows the old joke about the pregnant teacher who can’t think of a name for the upcoming tiny arrival because each name she considers has a negative association with a former student. “I can’t name him ‘Ben’ because of that teenager I had in class named Ben who was always whispering obscene things under his breath to the girls who sat around him.” Names are important and sometimes they have personal connotations.
As a former teacher making up names for characters in my book, I don’t have to worry about past associations. I can go for broke on names. I can also use names I like from my own life, go through a phone directory, or jot down a name I hear in conversations.
With these thoughts in mind, I’d like to mention ten guidelines to make character names work better for both writers and readers.
First, as an author who reads, I have to make sure I don’t subconsciously use names I have read before in books. One of my favorite sleuths is Spenser in the Robert Parker novels. This character makes sure the reader understands that he has two s’s in his name because of the poet, Edmund Spenser. And this detective is quite the poetic philosopher. Perfect name. Taken. I can’t use it.
Second, as an author who has lived many, many, many years, [well maybe only two “many”‘s is enough], I need to make sure I don’t use a name and location of a real person I’ve known in my past. I found myself subconsciously doing this with a minor character who had the first name of a long-ago college roommate, and who lived in the roommate’s current city. A week later I realized what I had done and changed it.
Third, the main character has to have a name I love because I will be using it a great deal, hopefully in more than one book. My main character, Grace Kimball, has a first name that I love. The religious concept of “grace” has always been an awesome idea to me. Ditto the concept of “grace under pressure” in Hemingway novels. “Grace” is also the name of a beloved granddaughter, and it’s a beautiful concept when used as “graceful.” Then, of course, Grace Kelly, beautiful American film star, was the epitome of grace. “Kimball” was simply a last name that I conjured up because it went nicely with Grace.
Fourth, I never introduce too many names or characters at once. Even though I’ve read books that include a table or genealogy of several generations, I get confused if I read too many character names too quickly. I try to find unique ways to introduce characters.
Fifth, I try to make names memorable so the reader won’t have to page back to figure out who this character is thirty pages later. For example, my detective is TJ Sweeney, a decidedly detective-sounding name. Not until much later in the book does the reader learn that the “TJ” stands for Teresa Johanna. [I always wanted to name my daughter Johanna, but I was vetoed on that one. Good thing, I suppose, since my grown-up daughter tells me she doesn’t like that name.] So now I have free reign to use it in my book.
Sixth, I make sure my main characters have names with different syllable combinations and different first letters. This makes it easier for the reader to remember which character is which. I don’t have a Sharon, Susan, Sandy, and Shauna in the same story.
Seventh, I believe a great way to introduce humor is to use a name to indicate what a character is like or to indicate an opposite. In A Silent Place to Die, my work in progress, the mayor’s name is Mayor Blandford. And, yes, he is bland. I also include a character with a slobbering, ugly pet dog like the Bordeaux bulldog in Turner and Hooch. My character/owner named him “Adonis,” a name from several mythologies that represents a handsome male. This dribble-mouthed dog is anything but.
Eighth, since my story takes place in Endurance, Illinois, it’s important to have multiple ethnic backgrounds and cultures because even in small town America a person will see various names. Grace discovers that Endurance’s past included a huge Swedish population because she researched a story involving Gustav Swensen. In checking out his grave at the cemetery, she discovers Ahlstroms, Olofssons, and other Swedish names. In current Endurance, she drives impatiently along at 10 mph behind Nub Swensen, probably a descendant of Gustav. Nub doesn’t get the concept that 35 mph doesn’t equal 10 mph, one of this author’s pet peeves about small towns.
Ninth, I describe secondary characters who aren’t all that important with just a first or last name or the job they do such as “the janitor” or “the train porter.” The reader will not see them more than once or twice so they don’t have to waste brain cells remembering them.
Tenth, I use different names for characters only if I make sure the reader understands what I’m doing. Otherwise, confusion reigns. Grace would call her friend “TJ,” but others would call her “Detective” or “Detective Sweeney.” Her boss, Stephen Lomax, might yell “Sweeney.” And just to vary descriptions, “TJ” can sometimes be referred to as “the detective.”
An additional note: I keep a list of all names of people and places I use in my rough draft. Each time I finish a chapter I add to the list so I’ll be consistent throughout.
These are the guidelines I try to observe for character names. In a future post I will consider author sources for place names for their novels.