Saturday, March 28, 2020

What to Call Your Characters

Story Step 8

In Story Step 6, I suggested you don’t need to have the perfect title before you write your story. Working titles are fine. Stumbling across the perfect title during the process is always fun.

On the other hand, choosing names for your characters is an important early step when writing a story. Assigning names helps you bond with your characters better than calling them Male #1 or Female #2.

Names carry a lot of weight. This is as true in real life as it is in a story. Choosing the right name for your characters is important.

I love names and have a spreadsheet of several hundred male and female names I’ve collected over the years. I’ve visited cemeteries to record names and life span dates from gravestones. I’ve found unusual names in obituary columns and news articles, and I’ve plucked names off the identity badges of sales clerks.

I’m not shy about name gathering or asking the story behind an unusual name. After complimenting a person’s name, I often ask him or her about its origin. The stories vary, but often their parent is paying homage to a relative or friend, or they’ve taken the name from a story by a favorite author.

I also regularly access the U.S. Social Security Administration’s baby names web pages. This site comes in handy for researching the popularity of names by the decade. Did you know the girl’s name “Emma” was not only the most popular name for 2018, it was also the top contender in 1880?

I write historical romances and one way to keep characters’ names true to a certain time period is to check the bibliography of nonfiction books. Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, a memoir edited by C. Van Woodward, offers a treasure trove of mid-nineteenth century American names. Historical biographies or memoirs from any time period provide the writer with many choices for character names.

When selecting the names of your characters, be sure you have a variety of names that begin with different sounds. If you pepper your story with too many alliterative names, it can be confusing to the reader. Your goal is to keep your reader reading, not confuse him or her. If you’ve ended up with a Polly, a Paula, a Patsy, and a Petunia, you need to rethink your characters’ names.

Now, I realize parents sometimes get a little carried away when naming children and some love the idea of all the names beginning with the same letter. But think about the classic Little Women for a moment. By giving the four sisters completely different names (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy), Louisa May Alcott ensured we’d be able to tell them apart as we read their story.

Another pitfall for writers when naming a character is to pick hard to pronounce names. To be honest, if I can’t figure out how to pronounce a name, I just come up with a nickname to use. I know I’m not the only one who substitutes an easier version when faced with an unpronounceable name.

My suggestion, think twice about wasting a lot of time coming up with a name your readers can’t pronounce. If you just can’t let go of an odd name, you have two choices: use it on a supporting character or supply its correct pronunciation as soon as possible. If you chose option two, weave it into the story. Perhaps another character stumbles over the pronunciation and the main character corrects him or her. Using an easy to pronounce or well known word as a synonym will probably help readers the most.

For example, this character’s name is Terry Lough.

“Ms. Luge?” The nurse looked up from the file she was reading to scan the waiting room. The mispronunciation of her name grated across Terry’s nerves. She stood and headed for the nurse. As she drew closer, she said, “Not the toboggan race. Lough, as in a tree log.”

Always remember, your goal as a writer is to write a story that captivates readers. When the reader gets hung up on the pronunciation of a character’s name, unwillingness to continue reading is the more likely response.

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