Name Theory: Guidelines, Not Handcuffs

Like the Character of the Week, all of our characters truly pop into existence as whatever age they are in the story. Still, this does not mean that the writer shouldn’t follow basic guidelines in naming the characters.

Giving the characters age and place appropriate names are just the beginning. (Although I am horrified to find time and again, this is not something that many writers deem worth their time.) Beyond appropriateness, the character’s name should follow a set of guidelines. But which guidelines?

Despite what certain writers seem to believe, names shouldn’t be chosen based on what is easiest for the writer, what is convenient, or even what you ‘like’. Names should be chosen to serve the story and characters’ needs and, most importantly, to serve the readers.

Many writers make up a set of guidelines for themselves that sound idiotic to me:

I give my characters three letter names. Really? Your novels take place in a world where people only have three letter names?

I named my characters after people I know who inspired the story. Oh, so you want to make it easier for them to sue you later.

I gave my characters the names that I wanted to give my children. Even though those names were invented in the last ten years and sound crazy on your middle aged historical character.

Even the places writers claim they find names baffle me. They say they cull names from:

  • The phone book
  • Obituaries
  • Baby name announcements
  • Spam
  • Name generators

While I believe any place is a good place to make a build a list of potential names for characters, the thing that baffles me is that writers will use these short and generally inappropriate lists of names to choose for a character that needs a name right now. Hmm, let’s see, I’ll take the first first name from page 11, and the last last name from page 249, and use the middle initial from the name on the advertisement on the back cover. Yeah, that will make the perfect name for my villain from an alien planet.

Even so-called professionals, and people who claim to have spent years of their lives honing their craft, give the names of their characters no more thought that they would to naming a pet. Well, the SPCA named the dog Farter two days ago when it was dropped off, so I guess the dog will be stuck with it forever.

Come on. If you don’t think your characters’ names deserve at least as much consideration as you give to the color of their eyes (who has grey eyes, really?) and to the history of their families going back 5 generations, then you don’t deserve the muse you’ve been given.

Because I believe creativity is a gift. And I believe we should exercise that gift until we learn how best to place a comma, turn a phrase, and name a person.

Because if you want your story to feel real, you need to treat the characters as if they are real living, breathing, human beings (or aliens, or cats, or whatever). And you need to give them your respect and consideration.

(Sorry to rant, I know I sound like the Lorax of character naming. I just could not believe some of the things I read in the last week.)


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