Name Theory: The Cure for the Common (Character) Name

There are reasons why people choose typical, common names for their characters.

Sometimes they choose a common name because they want their novel to be timeless; however, many things in your novel will soon become dated and most novels do not even sell out their initial run, so timelessness is a lofty and wasted goal.

Sometimes they choose a common name because their character is supposed to be an “everyman”; however, a true “everyman” has no discernible character, and is therefore not worth reading about.

Sometimes they choose a common name because that’s what people do in their genre; however, some genre conventions are made to be broken.

Characters live in a specific time and place. They have a specific history and motivation. And, they are not just pawns in your story.

Characters should be as real, and full, and rounded as people are.

But, there are good reasons why you may wish to choose a common name for a character.

You may wish for your character to be relatable. This is especially true in Romance where the story is part wish fulfillment and where the reader will want the character to be common “like them”. So in Romance, while the male love interest often has a sexy name, the female protagonist will generally have a common name like Elizabeth or Sarah.

You may wish to have your story reflect realty, which you cannot do if you populate an entire contemporary novel with characters who have odd or rare names. You need to populate the reality of your story with some commonly named characters. Usually I give some of the second tier characters and many of the third tier characters very popular names for their birth year (such as naming the neighbor couple who are in their mid-30s Jennifer and Jason).

Or, if you’re writing a children’s book, you way just wish to sell books, because people will buy a book just because the main character has the same name as the child the book is for. True story.

The most important thing is to give your character the right name. For some characters this will be something ultra-trendy, or classic and elegant, or off-beat. Look to your story to help guide the type of name that will help your character be both realistic and memorable, and will thereby help your story come alive for the reader.

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