Wednesday, February 15, 2012


There are plenty of pitfalls when you’re choosing names for your characters.

The first, of course, is that the name(s) you choose for your hero or heroine (simply because you happen to like them) may not appeal to your readers. Personally, I dislike the names Nathan and Fiona, although not for any particular reason. It’s been said that everyone associates names with people they know (or have known), but this isn’t the case with me. I don’t know any Nathans or Fionas, but somehow the names simply don’t resonate with me. Maybe that’s why those names came into my mind for secondary characters in my novels who, while not exactly ‘villains’, are somewhat unpleasant..

Another thing to think about is whether your names reflect the time when the characters were born. I won’t go into the very unlikely names I’ve seen in historical (mainly Regency) novels but, even in contemporary novels, we need to look at the names which tended to be used in the decade in which the characters were born. If a heroine is now in her 20’s, it’s very unlikely she would be called Bertha or Hilda (unless she’s named after a grandparent) since these names come from a different era. Nor is it likely that her mother is called Kylie or Beyonce. If I’m stuck for a name for a secondary character, I sometimes look at lists of the most popular names in the relevant decade.

Be wary of names which the reader might not know how to pronounce. Irish names are one example. I remember when a character called Aislin was referred to as Ash. At the time, I didn’t know this name was pronounced Ash-lin, and not Aze-lin, which was how I’d been pronouncing it in my mind. When, for no apparent reason, I thought of the name Neve for one of my heroines, I decided to spell it like that and not the true Irish spelling of Niamh, which looks nothing like its pronunciation. The same applies to any ‘foreign’ name, as I discovered when I was writing my novel set in Egypt. I chose names which sounded like their spelling.

Don’t use names which are too similar, or which rhyme. I once read a story where one character was Helen and another Ellen - could be confusing. Avoid having names like Carrie and Larry in the same story, or too many names starting with the same letter. Names which are usually associated together should also be avoided. I’m sure none of us would think of having hero Mickey falling for heroine Minnie, but I nearly fell into the trap when I had a character in my hero Jack’s past called Jill. Only when my heroine referred to Jack and Jill did I realise I needed to change Jill’s name!

Naming sisters or brothers of the hero and heroine needs some thought too. Would parents who give ‘traditional’ names like Abigail and Sarah to two of their daughters suddenly decide to name another daughter ‘Pixie’ or a son ‘Zowie’ (unless, of course, there’s a specific reason for this).

Surnames, too can cause problems. If heroine Paige Summers marries hero Justin Turner, does she become a Paige Turner? And should Sherry Morgan really marry Simon Kerry? Avoid surnames, too, which are associated with someone very famous (unless it's a fairly common surname). Any hero surnamed Clooney would always remind me of George – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, of course!

Any other pitfalls you can think of?


  1. I had an editor make me change the names in A Heart of Little Faith because I had too many names that were similar sounding (I have a thing for names that end in 'y'). I use baby naming books to come up with my character names, because I usually pick names that have meanings behind them that work with the characters. I used Gideon, because it means something to do with a rock, I think, and I wanted him to be really strong as a character, for example. Great post.

  2. Great post, Paula. I used to have this great method of choosing my names based on character personality traits. In my haste this past year, which we'll not talk of right now, I sort of deviated from my tried and true formula. I'm fixing a lot this year, name choosing is on the list. :) Thanks for the reminder and the great pointers.

  3. I like picking character names. In my first novel, a 1880's Midwest historical, my quick-tempered heroine is Stormy Hawkins. My hero is Blade Masters. (My husband likes old tv westerns.)

    In my current timetravel, the orphaned heroine is Angel Foster.
    Too much?

  4. Jen - my tendency is to go for one syllable name for my heroes - so far I've had Kyle, Jack, Ross and Paul, and my current one is Luke. Must admit I don't look at the meanings, just at whether I like the name!

  5. Lila - I've not really thought of names linked to character trait, mainly I think because parents don't know what their child's personality is going to be when they give him/her their name!

  6. Ana - not sure I like Stormy, unless it's a nickname? 19th century names (at least in England) were very traditional - and sometimes that's a nightmare when you try to trace your family tree since half of them could have the same name!

  7. Most of the time the names for my hero and heroine come to me fairly quickly, but for one of my WIPs, it took me FOREVER to come up with my heroine's name.

    It's important to stike the right chord with names. The 'wrong' ones might turn a reader off before she even opens the book.

    My first editor taught me the importance of looking carefully at secondary characters' names and making sure they all fit in with the story and don't 'clash' with the main ones, either.

    If I can't pronounce a character's name in a book, I usually just make up my own way and go with it.

  8. Debra - agree about striking the right chord, but easier said than done, since different names appeal to different people.
    Makin sure secondary characters' names fit is important, too, and often requires more thought than some authors seems to give it.