June 07, 2003

Naming your characters

I was playing on my Baen conference, Tinker's Dam, by posting a work in progress. It's still very rough, with names I had randomly slapped on. As I posted the sections, I decided to talk about various aspects of writing.

One of the first aspects I addressed was the craft of naming characters.

Well, one of the keys of naming is to try and get names that go together.

In Avatar Rising (another work in progress) I purposely slanted all the names to be Hebrew/Jewish to match with the idea that Caitlin's people had been the chosen people who went on an exodus. The people of Stonelick had the more 'modern' versions of the names, and the names of legend were all obscure old testament names. There were one or two 'made up' names that I created before discovering this writer's trick, loved and didn't want to drop.

A naming scheme works to create a consistant world picture. One cool trick
is to say that the people of your fantasy all have names from 'x' obscure
country and use them. There are lots of baby name sources on the web for
this. You have a catelog then of cool names that all go together without a
whole lot of thought.


This takes away some of the 'wrongness' of having a story where in a family or small village you have Brightwing, Lucy, Akira, X'la, Zeus, and Yancy.

GWEN takes place in a world much like Regency England, so I checked the Internet and found the following.


By looking through the various info, you can check to see if this is a real
regency name, or one brought in by a romance writer who thought it was a
'cool' name. I found a listing of true English Peerage of the late 1700s. From there I gleaned common first names.

Charles, Geoffrey, William, Michael, Peter, John, Robert, Anthony,
Elizabeth, Catherine, Mary, Christopher, Francis, Winifred, Evan, Gerard,
Caroline, Richard, Isabella, Juliana, Sophia, Charlotte, George,
Frederic, Georgiana, Augustus, Jane, Rebecca, Edward, Walter, Rosamond
(concubine to Henry the sencond), Edmund, Hugh, Paul Rachael, Susannah,
Joan, Humphrey, Joyce, Amelia, Maurice, Peter, Louisa, Oliver, Evelyn
(male), Sidney, Thomasina, Nicholas, Lucy, Cecilia Anne, Bridget, Emilia.
Gerald, Judith, Nathaniel, Matilda, Julia, Sarah, Barbara, Nevil, Gregory,
Trevor, Giles, Lettice (female). Gilbert. Emma, David, Matthew, Stephen,
Noel, Roger, Lewis, Margaret, Eleanor, Henrietta, Henry.

Actually, almost every first born son was named Henry or William. GAK! The
other names only came in if they had more than two sons! No wonder they
went by Lord Whitecliff, Lord so and so. If they shouted "Henry!" in Parliment, most of the room would say "What?"

I made a list of names I already used.

A - Anne, Alfred
D - Duncan
E - Edward, Esmeralda (but that's changing)
G - Giddeon, Gwen
H - Henri, Helena, Hal -- oops, heavy on the H's
J - Justin, James, Jenny Lind - ack heavy on the J's too
R - Rand, Rhys
S - Stephen, Simon,
T -Thomas
V - Vincent

I'm striking Helena from the list -- I used the name in my Ukiah series. Looks like I love the name. I'm changing Esmeralda too because it doesn't appear on the 'real english name' list I just found. (Other names don't too, but Esmeralda is a villian and the foreign name implies something I don't want to say about this mystery character)

I then made up a list of names to use for the next round of characters who need names.

B - Barbara, Bridget
C - Charles, Christopher, Caroline, Charolette
F - Francis, Frederic
I - Isabella
L - Lewis, Lucy
M - Matthew, Michael, Matilda
N - Nathaniel, Nevil
O - Oliver
P - Paul, Peter...and I'll add in Percy
R - Richard, Robert (since the other two 'r' are killed in chapter one, I
don't feel too bad about loading the rs)
S - Sophia, Sarah, Sidney

Yes, I don't have K, U, X and Z because it seems that names of that period
didn't use them much.

Yes, naming characters can be rendered down to boring.

The reasoning behind only have one or two names starting with a letter of
the alphabet? Well, it had to do with you don't want names too similiar in
a novel, especially if you have lots of characters and someone that shows up
at the start of the book and doesn't return until the end, or is only mentioned (which is common in mysteries where you lay clues early but they don't always seem important until later.) The more unigue the name -- in the manner of not being like the other name while still in the scheme of naming -- the easier it is for the reader to keep track of who is who.

For example, Jane and Jenny. Henry and Harry. The eye stumbles and you go,
'which one was that again?' The kiss of death is to have five kids in the
family and call them Don, Dan, David, Dick, and Denny. (The first three are
the names of my husband and his two brothers)

Also, its quite common to get stuck on a letter. In TAINTED TRAIL it was the letter J. (Jared, Jesse, Jay and Peter was originally Julian, Jacob, James.... you get the idea.) I decided to keep the J names for the members of the Kicking Deer family to make it a naming scheme to create a clue, but then I worked to make the J names very different. Jared, Jesse, Jay look very different on the page, making it easier to tell the difference between the characters at a glance. It also helped I rarely had the characters in the same scene.

Looking at the character list already, in GWEN, I'm leaning toward G with Gwen, Giddeon, and the desire to rename the Aunt Georgiana, J with James and Justin and Jenny, and H with Henri, Hal, and the aunts old name of Helena. If left unchecked, its possible to have 15 characters in a book, but use only three or four letters to start the names.

By making a character list of names used, and possible names to use, you eliminate the chance of having the story bogged down with too many similiar names.

Yes, all that work and the readers will never notice or know. Unless you get it wrong.


Posted by wen at June 7, 2003 11:30 AM

Re your Henry/Harry example. Not only do both look similiar on the page, but Harry is a common nickname for Henry (or at least, it used to be).

Lisa S. in Seattle

Posted by: Lisa S. in Seattle at July 28, 2003 05:40 PM

I can see nothing wrong with Don, Dan & David

other than I get them mixed up!!

Posted by: bea at September 2, 2003 02:01 PM