I found a thread discussion on Amazon.com the other day with readers talking about character names that took them out of the story. They were specifically speaking of Romance character names, which made the whole discussion even more interesting given the ridiculousness of some of those names.
Outside of the “unbelievable” names, there were several points that readers made about names that they felt ruined or threatened to ruin the story for them.
Some readers had a hard time with heroes who shared their father’s or brother’s names. In fact, one reader found a book where the hero shared her father’s first and last name, and she had a really hard time getting through the book because of that.
This is not really something a writer can work around. You certainly can’t plan to avoid the names of all of your readers’ relatives, but this could be a reason to avoid the 20 most popular names or so. For Romance heroes there seems to be a good reason to use a less popular name, if only because your readers’ fathers probably won’t share that name.
Still, the name should be something that a person would be named. Names for both heroes and heroines that were too rare, and especially first/last name combos that were out of the realm of possibility, annoy readers. Yes, we all know people with crazy names, and I even know of a weatherman named Storm Field (if you can believe that), but that doesn’t mean that any of these crazy names would read well. You don’t want your readers to laugh at your hero or heroine—unless they say something brilliantly witty.
Just remember, then, it should be something the characters say that is witty, rather than you trying to show your wit. Some readers took notice of names that were “inspired” by historical characters, but which came off as cheesy in the new Romance novel. Even when the story is a retelling of a classic story, readers seem to appreciate names that only reference the original names rather than rehash them.
By far, though, the biggest complaint in Romance novel names was unisex names. This is a pet peeve of mine, you may remember. The readers complained that they couldn’t tell the heroes from the heroines, had trouble visualizing the characters, and that they couldn’t keep all the characters genders straight in novels with several gender neutral—or really, gender bending—names (especially in series with those names).
This complaint was only compounded when the Romance novel was a historical. Readers wanted names that would be appropriate to the time period, and even if the writer did chose rare names the readers didn’t want to see a name that was historically a masculine name on a female, even if the name has “gone to the girls” nowadays. If a name like Ashley or Courtney were used, the readers would prefer to see them on a man—although, maybe not on the hero.
Readers of Romance are generally well read, and readers who love historicals generally love the history behind the times, so it is imperative that the writers do some research into appropriate details like names. Granted, there will always be readers who know more about a given time period than the writer did—there are a lot more readers out there than writers, so the numbers are ever in their favor. Still, the writer should do his or her best to make their historicals at least feel accurate, by using the appropriate names and settings at a minimum. If the reader can at least “see” the characters and setting clearly, she or he may forgive other mistakes, but knowing obscure facts about bloodletting will not curry the readers’ favor if you name your historical heroine Maxwell.
As always, my greatest advice in character naming is to consider the readers before you make a final name decision. While you may write for yourself—and you should!—if you plan or hope to publish, your editing should be done for the sake of the readers who want to love your words (including your characters’ names).