The art of naming characters

I’ve read how many authors feel paralyzed over the responsibility of deciding the names of their characters. That’s news to me – and certainly a good lesson. Or not. Naming characters has been one of the easiest things for me during my writing journey. Hmm. Perhaps, I don’t take the task seriously enough? Here’s the thing, though. When I write a story, almost from the beginning, I know my characters’ names. I feel and see and recognize them as someone identified by the name: changing it mid-stream, although I have done it, is difficult for me.

After publishing Beyond the Ripples, I recognized a problem with one of the names of a minor character. It was the same as a person I know who had gone through a similar event as my character. Honestly, I believe I had no idea about this as I wrote the character: had my subconscious brain been at work? After this book was released, I also recognized I had several somewhat similarly named characters among the many characters I had created (Amelia, Annie, Alison, Arnie). I told myself that next time I would pay more attention.

Now that Humanity’s Grace has been released to the world, and only now – yes, believe it – I recognize I did not take the elaborate amount of review time I thought I would on those character names. I did certainly change up a few, especially when I recognized what appears to be my biggest error in naming characters, that identified above: too many similar sounding/looking character names.

When I look back now, I’m amazed to not be able remember my characters without names. Why did I choose Paul? It simply came to me as the right name for him. No, I didn’t build the character after another Paul, although I do have a friend with that name that has a gentleness that I also believe is a most important trait of my character. Although not in the same short story, I have created characters with both the names Marie and Mary. When I knew Paul had a friend as a child, instantly I knew that her name was Marie – it was simply what it was. Whereas Mary was the perfect name for an entirely different character in a different story within the collection.

I decided it made sense to review what some experts advise when selecting character names. I’m pleased to learn, in retrospect and without having read this NY Book Editors article before, that I have followed most of the tips, which include:

  • Be realistic. It’s humorous to me that the article actually states, “There are a lot of Mary’s in the world, which is precisely why your novel may need one.” Bingo! I do have a Mary in Humanity’s Grace. (Um, also a Marie.)
  • Character’s Age. I do know I pay attention to this – the older characters in both books are identified as Ernest, Frank, Dixie, Gloria, and Marjorie. A younger character in Humanity’s Grace is recognized as Taylor.
  • The Character’s Parents. Yep – the parents I have created or envision in my books would select the names their children show up with in my pages.
  • Location. Absolutely. My books are all based in Oregon, and my characters wear names common to the Pacific Northwest or reflect their heritage. Essentially, they are names of people I know or have met.
  • Mind the Genre. Not sure this is so important in what I wrote, but yes, literary fiction makes it easier (than historical romance or dystopian).
  • Be Consistent. I specifically refer to my character Calvin as Calvin as an adult, but Cal in his teenage backstories. (I hope this helps readers.) Annie sees herself as Annie in Ripples as a younger character, but insists upon Anne as young adult in Humanity’s Grace, and in fact is frustrated in Humanity’s Grace when her mom continues to call her Annie. Otherwise my characters hold one name and no nicknames.
  • Be Dissimilar. Okay…here’s the tip I struggle with. I tend to have too many characters beginning with the same letter (In Ripples, Annie, Amelia, Alison, Arnie); In Humanity’s Grace (Mary, Marie, Marjorie, Monica).

The article lists a few more tips. Above all, I find it fascinating how differently each author approaches the journey of writing a book. From those writers who outline each detail before digging into the writing, to those, like me, who write impulsively as the story develops in our brains, almost as a stream of consciousness. I love the beauty of how we can each create in our own unique ways, even if we might look for tips from others. In conclusion: the tip from all those experts to me? Yes, I’ll try to choose fewer similar names in my next creation. Maybe. Don’t quote me though.

Did you have a favorite character in either Ripples or Humanity’s Grace? Are you a writer who also struggles with naming characters? I’d love to hear from you.

See all of the characters from Beyond the Ripples.

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