What’s In a Name? Naming Your Characters

One of the questions I get asked most often is, “how do you name your characters?”

The answer to that is…it depends. Sometimes I come across a name and I love it so much, I base a character around it. Caden, for example. Do I know anyone named Caden? Nope. But to me, the name Caden imparts a large, dark and dangerously handsome man but one who has a soft side.

Add Kane as the last name for alliteration (okay, not technically since it starts with a different letter) and you have…instant superhero! It reminded me so much of Clark Kent that I just had to make Caden Kane into a superhero.

Throw in Lana Lewis, this time with true alliteration, and BANG! Sci-fi superhero book. This, by the way, was exactly how my book SHI Guy came to be.

For the most part, though, there are a few hard and fast rules that I stick to.

Be different

There are stereotypical names out there for every genre. Why does everyone name their contractor hero Joe? Not that there’s anything wrong with the name Joe. I’m sure there are very nice men out there who go by Joe. But it’s commonly overused in the Romance industry. Try searching the internet for baby names and find something that speaks to you.

But not too different

As nice as it is to use uncommon or exotic names, I’m always cautious of giving my characters a name that is difficult to pronounce. Nothing pulls me out of a story more quickly than when I have to stop and wonder how to say a character’s name. Too me, a name like Eion (apparently the Irish version of John), throws me off. Now, if you’re Irish, or well-versed in Irish names, you probably know exactly how to pronounce Eion. The majority of my readers are not Irish and will probably never know how to say Eion.

If any of you know how to pronounce Eion, please do tell me. I still don’t know how to say this one!

If you feel you need to name your character by a potentially difficult name, please at least tell me how it’s pronounced.

The one exception that I make to this rule is if I’m reading or writing a sci-fi book about a race of human-like aliens. Then go for the most unpronounceable name you can make up. If you name your six foot, seven inch alien warrior ZERBTTZX and tell me it’s pronounced Bob, I’ll probably believe you. But see rule number one…Bob falls into that.

Consider the time period of your book

Please don’t name your 17th century duchess Tiffany. Or Brittney. Nuff said.

By the same token, please don’t name your contemporary heroine Gertrude. I know there are many lovely thirty-somethings that are running around with this name but honestly, if I see Gertrude, Bessy, Bertha or Nellie as a character in a contemporary romance, I’ll probably laugh. Every time I see it.

Be careful with the gender neutral names

I know there is a trend out there to give babies gender neutral names. Just as I know there are plenty of now stereotypical girls’ names that started off as boys names. In fact, I know several men by the names of Kelly, Lindsay, Shannon and Ashley. Just as I know women called Shawn, Riley and Bailey.

I’m enlightened, I swear. Name your child anything you want. Within reason, of course. Please don’t saddle your kid with the name Airplane Inspector. In fact, the heroine of one of my favorite series is name Riley.

Seriously though, I don’t want to spend the whole book trying to remember who the male is and who the female is.

Consider your characters

Even though my hero of SHI Guy, Caden, was based around a name, there have been plenty of times when I’ve agonized over what to name a character. In fact, I’m working on an outline for a new book and I can’t decide on a name for the villain, so I’ve pretty much substituted the words “that guy” for the villain.

For me, what happens most of the time is that I create a character. I study their flaws, their strengths and get to know them really well. And then I match the name to the character. If a hero is particularly aggressive, I will look for a very masculine, very assertive name.

J.R. Ward does a fabulous job of naming her heroes in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series. The big, strong, alpha, very aggressive males have names like Wrath. Actually, I could go on and on about J.R. Ward and everything else she does well, but I’ll stop the fangirl babble there because you probably don’t care.

Final thoughts

Much like naming children, careful thought needs to be put into what you name your characters. Maybe even more thought, since people can change their names and your characters can’t.

These rules are ones that I stick to and for me, they hard and fast. So my question to authors is: how do you go about naming your characters?

To readers: do you have a pet peeve with character names? If so, what are they?

My daughter has decided that she wants to go by the name of Super Fun and I told her that she was stuck for life with the name we gave her. So please don’t tell my children they can eventually change their names.