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Monday, September 3

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?