Monday, February 20, 2012

Choosing Character Names

What I'm reading: Sleep Tight, by Anne Frasier (Nook), Gun Games, by Faye Kellerman

I was reading a book recently that inspired this post revisiting my character naming strategies. This book was by a well-known, award-winning author, and is someone I respect. I'm not trying to single her out, because it's a common enough "problem" in books I've read. And for the sake of anonymity, I'm not going to show the names of the characters.

I counted 32 named characters. That gave me 32 first names, but not quite as many last names, because some were related, so they had the same last name. For this post, I'm not separating first or last names. I just put them all in a single list, alphabetized them, and then counted repeats of the same initials.

What I found:
B: 3
C: 8
D: 8
H: 2
J: 7
K: 1
L: 3
M: 6
P: 5
R: 6
S: 5
T: 1
V: 1
W: 2
Z: 1

Also, there one character had the same first and last initials as the heroine.

When I was starting out learning the craft, author Jeremiah Healy mentioned creating a simple list (I use Excel, but you can do it on a scrap of paper, or in a word document) with all the letters of the alphabet in 2 columns. Then, when you name a character, you put their first name in one column, their last name in the other. It's easy to see at a glance if you're repeating letters, or if you've got an abundance of 4 letter names, or names that sound alike.

And, Healy also suggested (strongly—if anyone's ever heard him, he's not a soft-spoken man!) that the initials of your protagonist be "dead" for any other characters in the book. Of course, when writing series, this can't always be the case, but it's still something to consider.

For the book in question, there are eleven "unused" letters of the alphabet which the author could have utilized in naming her characters. It might have spared the reader a little confusion, because I think a lot of us look only at the beginning of the names as we're reading through the book.

I checked my spreadsheet for my new Pine Hills Police book. Since it's #3 in a series, and I have recurring characters, it was a little harder to choose unique names, but at least I made a conscious effort to ease the confusion for my readers. Here's my breakdown—again, first and last names are included in the count.

A: 1
B: 3
C: 4
D: 4
E: 2
F: 3
G: 4
H: 3
I: 2
J: 1
K: 3
L: 2
M: 3
N: 3
O: 1
P: 4
R: 3
S: 4
T: 3
V: 3
W: 2

Also, some of these are 'throwaway' names—the ones that appear because there's no logical way not to mention a character's name, but the character may not even appear on the page, or may appear only once. On my spreadsheet, I'll note those in a different color. Likewise, I'll note my protagonists and other major players in their own colors. That way, when I need a name, and I see there's a 'green' one there already, I know it's safe to use that initial again because the other character was mentioned only in passing.

Does my "system" make for a better book? Of course not. But it does, I hope, make things a little easier on my readers.

As far as how to pick the names? That's an entirely different topic! I'll usually start with Google for popular names of the time period. Or I'll open the phone book! The important thing is to make sure the characters sound like their parents named them, not like you did. If I'm creating characters of different ethnicity, I might try to make their names match their heritage, although since we're such a melting pot, I think that might be stereotypes. However, it also might help readers visualize and remember characters. Just something to think about.

Speaking of sterotypes: Tomorrow, my guest is Holli Castillo, and she's going to be talking about that very topic.

Like this post? Please share by clicking one of the links below.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I re-released a book on my backlist and the first thing I did was change some character names. Too many that started with the letter b!

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth, funny how we seem to fixate on certain letters. "J" is one of mine.

Jessica Odell said...

Boarding cards left in seat-back pockets on airplanes?

mimi said...

I've started mining names from the "people" who send me spam. Those are some great secondary character names!

Terry Odell said...

Jessica - yes, that one paid off well!

Mimi what a fantastic idea. Will have to try that.

Anonymous said...

Oh, dear. Google account required. Wish me luck here.

Love that you're mentioning this. When I, as a reader, have to keep checking back to see for sure which character is saying or doing what, then I'm not having much fun.

Love the spreadsheet idea--and the color coding. Thanks for the ideas.

Okay, utterly failed with the google account sign-in

Terry Odell said...

LR, you shouldn't have to use a Google account. I try to make it easy so anyone can comment, although sometimes the instructions might be confusing. That's a Blogger thing.

Glad you figured out how to leave your comment. The spreadsheet is really simple. You don't need to know how to use Excel, just fill in the columns.

Alexis Morgan said...

I also think it helps to say the names out loud because some letters sound the same (c, k, ck.) The worst name issue I ever had I didn't discover until the book was published. Her name was Lily; his was Cal. It wasn't until I was giving a talk and said "Cal and Lily" that I realized how much those sounded like the flower, calla lily. Sigh.

I do like the spreadsheet--I'll have to try that.

M. S. Spencer said...

This is one of my pet peeves too! I have a list of ALL the character's names from each book & yet in this last one (coming out 4/24)my editor found a scene with 2 similarly-named characters (sigh)--your Excel idea is an excellent one. Also I have some Name websites where I can find an ethnic first or last name in alphabetical order--so if I know I want a D I just go to that list. Terry, your posts are always SO interesting! Meredith

Anonymous said...

I look at the credits on TV programs and movies for character names....always see good ones. Will start an alphabet list now as I'm starting a new cozy series. Thanks for the great idea!

Vicki Batman said...

I have an excel sheet and put the names in it. Since I write short fiction and the stories are set in my fictional town, I have to keep track of them and the businesses, homes, streets. I have a map, too.

Good post.

Paul McDermott said...

In the vast majority of cases MY characters tend to sidle up to me (sometimes dressed in disreputable long dirty raincoats, wearing dark glasses and a fedora, ciggie with an inch-and-a-half of ash between lips) and they whisper their name in my ear ... I always thought this was perfectly normal,happened for everyone!Have I been wrong all these years???

Terry Odell said...

Alexis -- ah, yes, the old "say them out loud trick." Good advice.

Paul - that method is fine. Just be sure your other characters don't whisper similar names in your ear. Your readers will thank you.

Nancy Jardine said...

I was almost writing a blog post today on how many characters are too many in a book. I'm thinking I might just go away now and do an accounting like you've just demonstrated. The problem with my current WIP is that I've characters who are of Dutch, German and English origins. Now, although, it has been fun to use 'naming your baby'sources I just have to hope they're all good names that I've picked!!

Phyllis Humphrey said...

For thirty years (or more) I've kept a sheet of paper in each book folder with letters of the aphabet along the side, and write character names next to them.


Good advice - thanks for the blog!

(PS - "J" seems to be one of my overused letters too!)

Misty MacRae said...

Great Idea - but what if your are writing about a certain nationality like the Scots - there's not much room for playing with names, first or last

Terry Odell said...

Meredith - thanks (my former editor didn't catch 3 characters named Henry/Hank in one of my early books.) Like Elizabeth, I made lots of changes when I got the rights back!

Karen, glad my system helped you. Tracking names over a series is even more challenging and requires due diligence on the part of the author.

Vicki - yes, setting is something else to track. I remember having to search my other two Pine Hills books to see if I ever named the street Sarah's shop was on.

Nancy - good luck. Ethnic names can be helpful or a pain in the neck!

Phyllis - looks like we share a system, albeit in different formats.

Dani - don't know why some letters seem to insist on being over-represented.

Misty - as long as you make an effort to make sure they're all different sounding/looking, you should be OK. I think there are enough Scottish names to give you choices.

Larissa Reinhart Hoffman said...

Good point! Will have to watch that problem!

I think it's worse when the names are foreign or fantasy-related. Even if the names start with different letters, their foreignness can make me confuse the characters.

I like the mining the spam idea!

Terry Odell said...

Larissa - one of my CPs write's fantasy, and I'm at a loss to remember any of his character's names. I tend to look at the first letter and ignore the rest because they don't make sense. So I nag him when he starts overusing letters!

Sally_Odgers said...

I realised I had a problem with this after years of writing when I started a webpage of my character names. It's at if anyone wants a look. For example, I have four people called Alexander, and six named Alice. I have fourteen characters named Jack, and seven each for James and Jamie. Jane scores 11, and Jen/Jennie/Jennifer/Jenny/Jenna/Jennet/Jens combine to make 18. So - J is my watch-for-it letter. Admittedly these names are often just "in passing" characters and they occupy 250 - odd books and over 30 years of writing, but I take a lot more care now. Mind you - sometimes editors re-name my characters on me. A child I named "Halley" was renamed to "Kate". That makes 8 Kates... whereas I had only ONE Halley (and a Hallie).

Holli said...

I find names in the local obituaries frequently, especially for older characters of different races and heritages than my own. I always pair the first name with a different last name, of course.

I tend to fixate on the letter "S".


Ray said...

The most difficult read I ever had, not counting Gertrude Stein was the first translation I read of War and Peace Everyone had at least four different names. I have a new translation in which everyone has the same first & last name throughout the book or at the most two. There is also a name list that tells who is related to whom and who they are in society or in the military.

In a non Russian novel what is confusing to a reader is when the author forget whose who.


Isabella Macotte said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing.

Calisa Rhose said...

In my first completed ms I had to change a name because it was too similar to the heroine's and the first thing my cps caught. Now I go about naming characters differently.

I'll have to pop in tomorrow for the next topic..

Terry Odell said...

Sally, that's impressive!

Holli - yes, I always Mix and Match when I use names from 'real' people.

Ray - when we were assigned War and Peace in High School, our teacher gave us a 'cheat sheet' of the names, and how to decipher the family lines.

Isabelle- my pleasure

Calisa - at least you had CPs who caught them. I had an editor who didn't.

Anonymous said...

It's surprising how easy it is to get confused when there's a bunch of names all starting with J or A or whatever. Bad enough when the names are for minor characters, but really confusing when the *main* characters have names with the same initials...and syllables, and endings...
And it's such a simple and fun fix! I do whatever I want in my rough draft, but then return to make sure every name is different.

I rely on Behind the Name (first and last names)which is really well-organized and shows you popularity, ethnicity, etc.
And for good, non-cliche ethnic names, I Google soccer teams in different countries.
DMac [aka Anonymous b/c I can't find my Google account info ;-p]

Grace said...

Good advice, Terry. I never start a book until I've made a character list (even though it grows as I go along). I type it up and inspect it for confusion before typing word one.

Terry Odell said...

DMac - thanks for the reference. I'll have to check it out.

Grace - you make me cringe with that kind of organization and planning. I usually know my hero and heroine, and any returning characters. I don't name the rest until they show up on the page.

Anonymous said...

In the first draft of my novel, I had characters named Sandy, Bunny, Billy and Benie. Sounded like a 1950s doo wop group. Benie was changed to Hank. I like "ly" names so I make an effort not to overuse them. I also try not to have character names with the same first initial: too confusing for readers skimming the page. Thanks for the post.
Sally Carpenter

Terry Odell said...

Sally - my first release of What's in a Name? had 3 characters named Hank/Henry. Don't know where my editor was for that one. Needless to say, I fixed all the names when I got the rights back.