Monday, September 03, 2012

The Name Game: Do All Your Character Names Sound the Same?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Names are a funny thing, whether it's names for characters or names for the places they live. It's important to make them identifiable from each other, but you still want to maintain a certain cultural consistency. You want your names to feel as if they all belong in the same world.

These two ideas often conflict, especially if you're writing genre fiction.

When I was first working on The Shifter, I chose names that sounded cool to me, felt like the characters, and looked different enough so readers could easily tell who was who. My main characters are named: Nya, Tali, Danello, and Aylin. Nya's last name is de'Analov.

Easy to tell them apart, but after the book was published, I got some interesting comments. Some folks mentioned the names didn't sound as if they all belonged to the same place. Danello sounded Italian, Aylin felt Celtic, de'Analov seemed Russian. They didn't fit the culture I had created for my fantasy world.

These comments didn't just come from fellow writers, either. I've had several e-mails from young readers (like 12 years old) who have asked about the names and mentioned this. Not in a critical way, they're just curious where I came up with them and said how they all sound like different cultures. Readers notice this stuff.

And they're right. Odds are these names never would have all been used in the same area. Just like you wouldn't find "Bob" in a small province in ancient China, and naming a character that would stand out. Names in the same geographic area or culture tend to have very similar naming conventions.

(More on naming characters here)

For my new book, I paid more attention to this and kept my names true to the South American/Incan inspiration I used to create my fantasy world. There were lots of Z, O, T, L, U, I in the names.

And they all kinda looked alike.

Xiomo looks a lot like Tiago and Senaldo. Itzel isn't that different from Terzet. When everyone's in the same room, it's easy to get confused about who is who if you're not the one who named all the characters.

In an effort to keep that geographic and cultural consistency, I broke the rule of making my names clearly identifiable.

I had a choice to make. Did I want reader clarity or cultural accuracy? I chose clarity. If my readers are getting confused, they won't stick with the book. I'm writing fantasy, not historical fiction, so I can change whatever I want.

Fixing the names wasn't too hard. Since I already had a South American vibe, it was easy to expand my naming convention to include Spanish-inspired names. I picked characters who were born in other regions and changed their names. They weren't from the city the book is set in, so it felt more natural for their names to be slightly different. But they maintained the Latino flavor and gave the world a sense of consistency.

When you're naming your characters, try thinking about how they fit into both the world and the reading experience. Ask yourself:

Do my names all start with a different letter of the alphabet? 

 Main characters with the same first initial can make it hard to remember who is who. Ashley and Alice could confuse readers if they think of the character as "the girl with the A-name." (And they do this more than you'd think)

Do my names have many of the same letter pairings? 

 Lanelle, Danello, and Manel blend together and can easily be mistaken for each other. Be wary of strong sounds that stand out. Like Tuck, Puck, and Chuck.

Are my names culturally or geographically consistent?

If the story is set in middle-America in the 50s, you're not going to see a lot of Bella, Dakota, or Channing. But you will see a lot of James, Michael, and Mary. If your fantasy world is inspired by a culture or region, odds are the names will have a similar vibe or sound to them, just like names from different cultures in our world. French-inspired cultures aren't likely to have Grettza or Mai'ping.

Do my names have a varied number of syllables?

If every name is the same number of syllables, they can also blend together in the reader's mind. Fred, Tuck, Bob, and Viv don't look anything alike, but if the reader remembers them as "the character with the short name, they all look the same. Try mixing it up. Bob, Alexander, Harry, Billie Jo. Or even Rey, Daranaya, Lilla, and Simpak Bo.

Are my names pronounceable?

Readers often just look at a name instead of read it (especially true in science fiction and fantasy). Nekautuana, Nekitonapi, Nekusassama all have different endings, but they're so hard to pronounce the reader will likely identify them as "Nek" and skip the rest. If they can't pronounce them at all and have no easy nickname, they won't even try to remember them.

Names are important. They're how the reader connects to the character and the world that character lives in. But if they can't remember who's who, them can't enjoy the story. (or remember it long enough to tell all their friends about it) Make sure you make it easy for your readers to remember your characters and your story.

How do you choose your names? 

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. When I write my fantasy story "Necessary Evil" many years ago, the names were a product of being really fed up fantasy novels that had unpronounceable names. Sometimes it felt like the author threw a bunch of letters up in the air and named the character by what fell on the floor. So I picked names from a baby book that I liked. Didn't pay any attention to how they fit. Story got rejected, with the names being one of the reasons! I looked at the names, didn't see anything wrong, and got it published in a magazine.

    Cue years later I get comments back on a fantasy novel. Her main comment on only 10 pages was that my world building was terrible. Head thump. Probably the names, too. I realized that I was naming characters like a 12-year old picks names. So I renamed 99% of my characters. For that book, I used a resource that organized names by origin. All my names were Latin. For the last names, I used a Latin surname sites.

    For a contemporary fantasy story set in the Northern VA area, I use the obits of the Washington Post to grab last names. A very easy way to getting a local flavor.

  2. Another great post, Janice. Its a difficult mix, especially for fantasy... Keeping the names pronouncable, distinct and yet consistent is a tough balance to achieve. Not so difficult with a contemporary story. Ive come across members of the same family with names from different ethnic backgrounds (brothers Igor and Carlos, for example).

    TS Elliot once wrote "the naming of cats is a difficult matter, it isn't one of your holiday games". Same seems to apply to characters ( although I doubt anybody would turn that into a musical).

    Mind you, I would love to read about Bob's adventures in ancient China.

  3. One of my big pet peeves is names with a lot of apostrophes. One or two is okay, but after that I want to scream. Some of my characters are Fae that don’t live in the real world. I use Celtic and Gaelic names for those. They are just foreign looking enough. But a good chunk of my characters are Fae living and trying to fit into the real world. For my Turkish djinn, I gave him a real Turkish name (Adem) and for my Norn I gave her an Old Icelandic name (Dalla.)

    In my latest WIP, I realized I have two side characters, Grady and Greer. Since I plan on using Greer in a later story, I changed Grady’s name to Brady. Similar sounding name but the reader won’t get confused with the Gr thing.

  4. Excellent post! I always have to change some names after my first round of betas because they say they're too similar. Not sure why I do this...These tips should help!

  5. This issue drives me crazy because I am so anxious about naming - not only do I know all the rules, ie: can't have names with similar sounds, letters, syllables, etc, but my options are further limited by having synaesthesia, so I couldn't have a D name for a character I liked, because D is horrid. And I couldn't have an M name for a blonde character because M is dark.

    It's even worse in my current w.i.p. because it's a far-future story (so there's the major decision of real names or fantasy?) and every single name needs to have not only a meaning but a *double* meaning. I've got three quarters of them worked out but just one character without a suitable name can send me into a tailspin, lol.

  6. In real life and as a reader, I am so bad at names that I *often* remember people as "girl with A name" or even flat-out forget who people are.

  7. My characters' names are always what randomly pops into my head. Sounds like a good idea but I do have to change them when needing them to make sense culturally, etc. Sometimes my whimsical approach just doesn't cut it.

    I guess it's okay for space opera stories though (my current obsession)--although some unfortunate characters with names like Moth and Annie have wound up having to share the same stage...

  8. I've been working on my manuscript for almost three years now and most of my characters still have placeholder names. I guess you could call me a procrastinator.

  9. As a fantasy writer, I tend to go with American/English names for human names, and for faery names make up some names. I like Gaelic, Celtic, and Latin, so those are all influences. But I've never considered names beyond "do I like this for this guy?"

    This is why I love your blog, Janice. You always make us look a little deeper.

  10. I have an alphabet in the front of my note book and write the names down there. So YEA I've got one thing right. As I am writing a YA utopian normal/paranormal future/current - I know I know but it's all those things and more - I am using some normal names with a twist. Myka (Mike) Lellie (Ellie) Graylan (Graham) and some made up names, Mirana (I later discovered she a video game heroine) Tass and Paydo) Its fun. The names just appear. Who know what I'll end up with though.

  11. I'm not always as careful with names as I should be. There have been several times when I had to make up convolved backstories to explain things like why a guy named Fortunato lives in a region populated by Eriks and Hans. (He was named after a horse.)

  12. So far, my storylines have stayed in the U.S., so I Google "popular names" for the year/time period of my characters' births. Fun to scroll way down on the list for a variety of choices.

    From there I jot down the ones that appeal to me, then run that list by my beta readers. They've strongly recommended I change a name or two ;-)

  13. Loved this post, Janice! Names are something I thought about a LOT for my last books, since I was writing YA-SF, and I needed to do a lot of worldbuilding. My main characters lived on a planet where everyone can fly, so I wanted all their names to have a slightly ethereal feel. (Aria, Zaire, Raura, etc.)

    But then I wanted family names to have a strong resemblance to each other, to show a close-knit and hereditary culture. This got complicated because children had to have names that resembled both their parents and their siblings. I realized just how complicated this was when I said that two brothers--Kekkir and Zephir--each married one of two sisters--Raura and Rea. Kekkir and Raura's son became Katka. Zephir and Rea's twins became Zaire and Aria. (Because twin names have to be especially comparable, right?)

    It was a lot of fun, but problematic. Whenever I come up with one new character, I have to sit down and map out their whole family so I know the names all match. Hah.


  14. I usually try and have some meaning behind the name I've chosen, at least for the main characters. I'll scour over lists (searching through baby name sites is helpful) and see if I can't find a name that has a meaning similar to who my character is or foreshadowing something about them.

    But I have made up names too. In one of my earlier stories, all the names were a bit more challenging to pronounce and when I discussed the book with friends I realized maybe that isn't what I wanted. Keep it simple, at least to a point, became my mantra.

    Great post as usual. Thanks!

  15. Really great article!! Definitely true, all of it. I get way confused when I read a book with characters who start with the same letter or have similar syllables or consonants, etc. I TRY to make my own different enough, when I pick them out. Usually the names are all American names, but my WIP has some Arabic and African names. More challenging, but fun!

  16. This is SO true. I recently changed my MC"s name. It was a pretty name, but it didn't roll off the tongue. Once I changed it, I then had to change her last name, too. But now I hope it's much better :)

  17. Linda, I've also heard of folks using the phone book to find names. What a name journey you've had! Great story though.

    Jo, love the Elliot quote :) So true. I crafted quite a few bad fantasy names in my early days. Maybe I'll have to send Bob to China to fight ancient zombies?

    Buffy, a crit partner and best pal has the same peeve. I drove her CRAZY with that in my first novel. Love Adem and Dalla.

    Becca, if you're like me, names come to you as you write and it isn't until later you see where they overlap. I don't always realize I have similar ones until I see them in context. Thank goodness for find and replace!

    Sarah, Oh goodness! LOL On the bright side, you probably don't have to change them once you pick them. You do all the work on the front end.

    Narrative Threads, lots of folks do. I'm pretty good with names, but I still forget or pick nicknames for them (in books, not so much with people). I think our eyes just glaze over them if they're not major players. Or are hard to pronounce.

    Tonya, for space opera I'd think that's fine. Any place where you'd have lots of different cultures in the same area would naturally have different names. Same as if you had a port city in a fantasy.

    Chemist Ken, LOL yep, I'd day :) But by the time you name them, you'll really know who they are.

    Rachel6, aw, thanks! I do try :)

    Rosie, I have that same alphabetical name list :) I like your names. Interesting and a nice variety.

    Chicory, okay, now I want to know why the horse was named Fortunato:) And why his parents named him after a horse.

    Kreann, I think Social Security has a great names by year/decade site. Great tip for getting the right feel for an era.

    Mandy, nice! Complicated, but very cool, hehe. That'll lend such a nice sense of realism to the story.

    Jae, discussing them is a great way to really see how it'll be used "in conversation" so to speak. I had a name or two that seemed fine when I read them, but then when I talked about it, I stumbled over it. Simple does make it easier :)

    Carol, I keep a list of them so I can see what letter I've used and how they stack up next to each other. I think I might also start doing them as a paragraph as well. For some reason a list didn't make some similar ones pop out like seeing them next to each other in the text did. Maybe that'll help you?

    Julie, I'm sure it is :) It's funny how things spoken can be so different from things read. It looks fine, but then you trip over it when you read it aloud.

  18. I look at culture and setting. I also look at time period. But your post makes me think also about the length and sound of the names. I recently read a book with a Melanie and a Melissa. I couldn't keep them straight from each other. Good post.

  19. Suzanne, Mel and Mel look the same to a reader. Great example!

  20. Hope I don't seem to ramble, but this intrigues me. Nick names can have interesting backstories too. One of my characters is American Indian & goes by Bunny. Had to do a LOT of research to find a local tribe for that tongue-twister name (hence the reason she goes by a nick name.)

    Another is... well... bland like the character's description at first glance. But get to know Jack, & many hidden quirks are discovered. Oh, his name is Quintyn Jack Smith, by-the-way. There's a reason for that spelling too.

    One of my main characters goes by Tommie. In the business & personal world, petite Thomasina's always surprised people.

    Some of my other names (especially secondary ones) were picked out of magazines & I spontaneously thought they fit. Hope it works for WIP.

    1. Nicknames are great ways to help differentiate characters, and they can indeed show personality, or even how others see them. A good thing to remember for sure :)

  21. How do you manage to make your character names culturally consistent at the same time avoid using the same or similar names over and over?
    My only solution would be naming websites but sooner or later, I'll probably run out of names to use in those.
    I have a problem with making names with culture consistency.

    1. I use the naming websites, and the Social Security site (they show list of most popular names by years and whatnot).

      There are so many baby name sites that show origins you can find a lot without duplicating.

      I'll also just Goggle "Cuban surnames" or whatever, which brings up other sites that track that sort of thing, and even show names by regions within a country. That can be very helpful of you have subtle differences between regions.

    2. Well that definitely helps :) Thanks
      BTW if for example I have a character who has the same first or last name as another creator's character. Would this be alright or do I need to change it? Not the same entire full name though just the same first or last name

    3. It depends on how well known the name is. For example, if you have a magical detective named Karen Dresden, or an ex- military cop named Karl Reacher, you probably should change it. But if it's a name no one would associate with that character when they read your book, you're fine.

      Of course, the more unusual the name is, the more likely people will recognize it from the original source. A character named "Daenerys" is going to stand out no matter what genre or book she's in.

    4. For example if I had a character named Kevin Snow which has the same last name as Jon Snow from Game of Thrones but the only thing they have in common is that they hardly know their parents while Kevin Snow has amnesia, Jon Snow's parents were kept hidden from him. So would this be alright?

    5. Sounds fine to me. One caveat though...if you're writing a Game of Thrones-type novel, it might raise some eyebrows. The closer the story is to the one the name came from, the more it'll look like a copy.