Character names – why it is so important to get it right first time

You would think that a simple thing like deciding character names would be easy. I mean there are thousands of names in dozens of languages, how difficult can it be?

Really really difficult, that’s how.

For a writer this has to be right, a wrong name and the book doesn’t feel right and will never feel right. Gandalf could never have been Fred the Wizard. Not a chance. Ever.

The problems start right at the beginning, you have an idea and start writing and right there on the first page, even possibly the first line or even the first word, your main character has to say something or do something.  But what is his or her name?

I got told off once by a writing friend who said I can’t have my main character with the same first name as me. It doesn’t work. By the same token, they can’t be any of your relatives names, then if you extend that out a bit, there goes best friends from school, work colleagues, especially your boss, the person in the next desk to you at work and very quickly you will find it surprisingly hard to pick and stick to a name.

Have say ten or so characters in your book and the problem really takes off.

But it is so important to get a name and stick to it. I made the mistake of using one of my brothers names in a piece years ago and my other brother said you can’t use that. But to me the name fitted perfectly and stayed that way for several years during a lean spell in the writing and editing of the work.

So, way after it had been written and was in the editing phase, I had to change the name. It is quite easy using find and replace on the computer, but that doesn’t catch all of those times someone interrupts someone saying their name and only getting part the way through, like say “Michael and someone had got to Mic….” before being interrupted. This needs to be fixed each and every time, that takes a lot of time reading and re-reading the script.

Then the bigger problem occurs, because the name will always be the first name you used in your head, so when you change the name you forget and still refer to the character by their original name.

You also have to be careful with unusual names that a “celebrity” has. Say for instance Germaine. It is a lovely name but there is a writer, broadcaster and well known person who champions the feminine with that name and somehow the reader may unconsciously assign their personal traits to your character which may off course be completely inappropriate to what the writer is trying to create.

It can also be the same for characters in films and TV programmes. If you had for example an elderly character with the name Dot, the reader may well associate a heavy smoking person to that character, or possibly worse, a child called Dot and the association with the TV character will be made when that is completely opposite to what the writer meant.

So, by the time you have considered all of that, the name pool is surprisingly small if you want your character to be who you create and not the association with someone fictitious or real.

In the example I gave earlier, I changed Frederick for Michael and Kevin for Todd, but to me, in my head they will always be Frederick and Kevin. That creates its own problems that to this day remain whenever I think of that book.

It can also be why, in sci-fi and fantasy that writers take that wonderful bold leap into the unknown and make up their own names for characters. I have and I love it.


About purpleandrew

Andrew, recently diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome is a 54 year old former geologist always had short hair, suited & booted for work. That all changed when the credit crunch hit. Now a complimentary therapist, hospital radio presenter, and writer. Andrew writes crime thrillers, Young Adult, and fantasy books as well as blogging about writing and other stuff that he feels strongly about.
This entry was posted in fantasy faery story, Fendrels' Tale, managing your writing, research, The Handbook of TOP TIPS To Manage Your Writing, writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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