What does it mean when your characters name themselves?

This week I read an interesting post the importance of choosing the right names for fictional characters. One of the points the post made was that authors should avoid doing anything that might bring a reader out of the story, including having names that sound alike.

I first ran into this specific problem when I was about to publish my first book, Maids of Misfortune. Most of you know the story by now: I published this book thirty years after I came up with the plot and twenty years after I wrote the first draft so, as you might imagine, I had grown very fond of the character names I had chosen.

Then one of my beta readers pointed out that two of my main characters, my main protagonist, Annie Fuller, and Annie’s maid, who I had named Maggie, had names that ended in “ie,” and she found this to be confusing.

Well, that was a blow! I certainly wasn’t going to change Annie’s name, so the name Maggie had to go. As the writer, I may have believed that no one could possibly mix up the two characters, but as a reader, I could understand how someone who was being introduced to both characters for the first time could mix them up. So, I decided to turn Maggie into Kathleen (another good Irish name and a salute to Kathy, the reader who had pointed this problem out.) Six years later, I can’t imagine  the character Kathleen being named anything else.

A second problem in similar names unfortunately slipped through. In Maids of Misfortune I introduced Mr. Harvey (one of Annie’s boarders) and Mr. Harper (one of Madam Sibyl’s clients) and I keep forgetting which is which when these characters reappear in my later books and stories—so I can imagine how difficult it might be for a reader to keep them straight. Since then, I have started keeping a list of characters names as I create them, changing them ruthlessly if I discover I have inadvertently created a name that is too similar to another.

A second issue is how to treat minor characters names in general. Since a minor character is often on the stage for a short time, I have discovered that I need to be very efficient in making that character memorable. For example, in any given book or short story in the series, the older seamstresses in Annie’s boarding house may not even have a speaking part, or they may only get to say a line or two (which is one of the reasons I finally gave them a whole short story of their own.) Here a name can do that. Miss Millie and Miss Minnie Moffet are hard to forget, because of their names. I also try to choose names that reflect a character’s ethnicity. I don’t have to keep reminding the reader that Beatrice O’Rourke is Irish because her name is the reminder. Interestingly, in 1880, over 74% of San Francisco residents in 1880 were either foreign-born or the native-born children of the foreign-born (from a variety of countries), so it is easy to create different kinds of names.

On the other hand, sometimes I leave a minor character nameless. There is no reason to force the reader to keep a name in their head if the character is never, ever going to appear again. Usually a descriptor like “errand boy,” “other teacher,” “policeman” is sufficient.

At the same time, I don’t want to get into the “unnamed ensign” habit (remember those early Star Treks, when one just knew that a crew member without a name was going to get killed on the next mission.) Giving names to enough minor characters makes it less obvious which of them might turn out to be important later on in the plot and which are really bit players.

Finally, there are the characters who simply announce themselves to me. This happens all the time. Beatrice O’Rourke’s name was just there from the moment I conceived of her over twenty-five years ago as Annie Fuller’s Irish cook and housekeeper. Then there was the occasion when I gave one very minor character in Maids of Misfortune (who had been one of those unnamed minor characters) a speaking part in my last major rewrite. When Annie ushered him into a room, he bowed and said, “I am Ambrose Wellsnap.” And there he was—fully formed, from my imagination to the page, and I wouldn’t have dared give him any other name. It’s a very silly name, and he is a pretty silly character. But I would swear he was the one who picked it, not I!

In Uneasy Spirits, it was the two spiritualists, Simon and Arabella Frampton, whose names just came, without any conscious thought, into my head. And in Bloody Lessons, it was Able Cranston, Nate Dawson’s new law partner. I can look back and speculate that I chose the name “Able” because I wanted the new law partner to be someone who Nate would look up to and learn from (who knows why his last name was Cranston?) But the choice itself was not conscious, nor can I imagine ever changing his name the way I did poor Kathleen’s. He was much too forceful a personality from the start, even though he only shows up in one scene. Then again, Kathleen is now such a real person to me now that I know she won’t ever let me change her name again (at least until Peter McGee gets her to tie the knot.)

Oh, and that reminds me of another problem––what to do with Annie Fuller’s name if (or when) she marries Nate Dawson. But I suspect that is a subject for a whole other post.

So, for the other authors reading this: How do you choose names for your characters? And readers, how important are names to you and do you have any kinds of character names that bug you—and take you out of the story?

8 Replies to “What does it mean when your characters name themselves?”

  1. As a reader, I get easily confused by character names that even start with the same letter. As an author, I don’t always notice it right away, but in the editing process I now look for such problems and force myself to change the names of characters if they begin with the same letter, or are in any way similar.
    Morgan Mandel

  2. Well, my dear Mary Lou, I suppose I should start at the beginning. My first thriller, The Winds of Kedem, was published in 1992 and was an English-language bestseller in Israel, where I spent many years as a foreign correspondent. So where to look for the names? Israeli family and friends, of course. The hero, David Katri, a Damascene Jew who escapes to Israel to become an agent for the Mossad, was named after the maiden name of my wife Yael’s best friend, Esther Katri (now Yehuda). The deputy head of the Mossad was named Rahamim Ben-Yaacov after one of my brothers-in-law. Commando leader Rami Yefet was an amalgam of my nephew Rami and Yael’s cousins, the Yefet family. The Arab characters were based on Shi’ite family names and not anyone I knew personally.

    Schreiber’s Secret’s characters were named for a reason, albeit an esoteric one. I have offered a Kindle Paperwhite to the first reader that can connect all the dots. Thus I’m not giving away anything here, folks!

    In my latest thriller, Cry of the Needle, Kieran Kelly sounded like a good a name for an Irishman (and I do love alliterative names). Another character, Countess Magda von Esterhazy, was based on a friend who is a member of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy. Esterhazy was the name of the Frenchman who spied for the Germans in the First World War, and then had a Jew, Alfred Dreyfus, blamed for his treachery. The Proctors were named after John Proctor of The Crucible because they were about as far away from his altruism as it was possible to be. Prof Jonathan Tring was named after a town in Hertfordshire, although he is an Essex boy at heart.

    So what’s in a name? Quite a lot it seems.

    Roger Radford

  3. I generally allow a character to name him/herself. Names come more with time than with effort – those several months or longer that it takes for me to move from thinking a story to writing a story.

    But in recent years I’ve picked up a new habit – because I also write screenplays, I now google a character’s name (because a production company will do this if I don’t) before setting it in indelible ink. This is not just a way to avoid sticky legal situations down the road – it’s also a way to avoid the problem of taking readers waaaaaay out of the story with a name that reminds them of the last National Enquirer cover they saw at the checkout stand!

  4. This is a fascinating topic. I spend considerable time think of names as to me the names have to fit the characters already taking shape in my mind. Some suggest themselves, others I struggle with. But to me, if a character does not have what to me is an ‘appropriate’ name, I think deepening and strengthening the character is be more difficult.

    My daughter said I shouldn’t use too many ‘unusual’ names as this could confuse readers. (Not sure what she meant by unusual — unusual here in Scotland might not be unusual in America or New Zealand.) I did this to try and avoid the names of actual people. I Googled all my names for In the Wake of the Coup, and found even the most unusual names were the names of pages of actual people. Rather than change the names of characters who had become like close friends or acquaintances, I altered the spelling slightly so the name was still pronounced in the same way.

    I wish someone would write a longer article on the pitfalls of inadvertently using the name of an actual person. I remember the Scottish author Iain Banks had a problem with that, though can’t remember the outcome. But whereas pre-internet we were less aware of people with similar names to our characters, now it is very easy to find out. If we wanted to play it really safe we might discover some day that all our characters had to be nameless.

  5. I love naming my characters. I also love ethnic names. If the hero is a Scot, you don’t name him John Brown, even if he’s a fourth generation American. I think the most difficult name I’ve ever chosen is Patrick Makowllen. It’s not hard to pronounce if someone thinks about it for a moment. Most of the fictional world calls him Rick or Patrick except for his mom who still calls him Patty. (Which is great for a few laughs.) I had this mental vision of who he was and the name just happened. His father is Seith and his mom is Karen. What’s that make him? An average American growing up in a middle-class family.

    In writing my River City novels, I’ve stumbled several times with names. In A Son, the heroine is Katie. The mayor’s wife is Kate. And an upcoming novel has a Kathryn (Ryn) Yikes! So I used the situation to an advantage.

    In an upcoming novel, I have a father and son. One is spelled in French and the other was given the American spelling. I don’t think it’s confusing. I think it adds to the story as he follows in his father’s footsteps but in today’s high-tech world.

    For me, names are such an important part of the characters and really helps to define them. A name can blend in or stand out. And considering that the USA is a huge melting pot, we have lots of names from which to choose. It’s up to us as writers to turn them into memorable characters.

  6. The characters in our novels (“our” being my co-author and me) tend to name themselves – the major ones, at least. Lady Aida was certainly – and could never be – anything else; she is far too sure of herself! The minor characters’ names have been more carefully ‘chosen’ and that’s when I take care to ensure that the names don’t sound too alike, or (preferably) start with the same letter.

    We also ran a competition for our readers to choose the name of one of the characters in the second book in our series – naturally, the list of choices we offered included only names we felt suited the glamour and elegance of the character! Her chosen name was Catryn. 😉

    Characters in our short stories are generally ‘there’ before I start writing. I do also have a list of names that I think of (and either like, or think will suit a particular type of character) and I also downloaded a baby names book for when I need some inspiration . . .

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