Wednesday, 25 July 2012

10 Types of Character Names To Avoid

It's important to take care when naming your characters.  You want the reader to be absorbed into your fictional world and anything that pulls them out of that world, even if it's only for a second or two as they ponder your punctuation, is to be avoided if you possibly can.

1. Top of the list of character names to avoid is anything which doesn't have a straightforward relationship between the spelling and the pronunciation. I struggle with many Irish names such as Aibhlinn and Caoimhe even when I know what the pronunciation is supposed to be (ave-leen and kee-va respectively).

2. Tricky to pronounce ones comes next.  The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler is one of my favourite books, but is the main character's name Macon pronounced May-con or Mack-on? I've been told that there's a city in the USA which is pronounced May-con, so assumed it had to be that rather than than the French wine growing region Mack-on, but my American students struggle with it also. And what about La-a? This is apparently pronounced Ladasha. Yeah, right.

3. At least Macon is short. Rumpelstiltskin is fine for a short fairy story, but imagine a whole novel featuring him. Worse, imagine typing out Rumpelstiltskin hundreds of times.

4. But sometimes a character needs a long name, in which case it's a good idea to abbreviate it. I once knew a woman called Anastasia Rodrigues. She called herself Birdie, which was charming. Rumpelstiltskin calling himself Rumpy would be less so.

5. Russian novels defeat many people because the characters have complicated names with patronymics and diminutives used interchangeably.  It's best to have one name consistently used per character.

6. Then there are silly, famous or punning names. In my school year was a boy called John Thomas, and girls called Catherine Parr and Fanny Blood.   I have met a child called Courtney Salmon whose parents knew the pun and still went ahead with it, which is simply mean.  That's all in real life.  None of the names would work for fiction because the reader would either snigger, or wonder if the author had realised the pun whenever they read the name.

7. Inappropriate names. Names are often era specific and class related. There aren't many working class Ruperts, or upper class Chardonnays. My grandmother was called Maud, her sisters were Edith and Ethel, her brothers Harold and Claude, all of which are splendidly Edwardian names and would work well in fiction set in that period, but would sit oddly in a contemporary piece.

8. Which leads on to similar names. I'd advise against having Maud and Claude in the same piece of writing, speaking as one who discovered the hard way that having characters called Jenny, George, John and Justine was a recipe for confusion.

9. For practical, writerly considerations I'd avoid names that don't pluralise easily - Tolkein ran into this problem with the party at the beginning of Lord of the Rings: when more than one member of the Proudfoot family were in the same room, did they become Proudfeet?

10. And finally, to end with endings, especially names ending with s - Davies, Thomas, Jones.  These can be tricky even if you're confident of your ability to use apostrophes and extra s's correctly.

PS Sorry about the recent absence, I've had some internet issues.  


Carol Warham said...

Thanks. A really helpful blog. I always have a problem choosing names and you have given me food for thought on the pitfalls to avoid.

Jennie said...

I find naming characters always difficult. Glad it was 'only' internet issues that kept you away - was worried you might be ill.

Sarah Duncan said...

Glad it's been of help, Carol.

Thanks Jennie, how kind to be concerned. If I'd been ill I'd have come on line doing a poor little me act looking for sympathy...Sad but all too true!

Giles Diggle said...

I wrote a complete first draft, then realised that my main female character had the same name as the protagonist of a well known American series of Teen vampire novels! Thank goodness for find and replace. Always worth checking.

Incidentally, Scrivener has a character name generator feature, which is always worth looking at.

And as for names, you couldn't make my own name up if you tried. Nice to see your Blog back.

Anonymous said...

I've taught a couple of Mauds lately, and also an Archibald (not Archie). Just by the way. They were five years old. Maybe Edwardian is the new new Elizabethan. Jacky

Paul Sampson said...

Of course if you want to be alien, it's de rigeur to have a weird name. I wrote a short bit a while back on 'aliening up' ordinary English forenames.

Penny said...

Very helpful! Choosing characters' names is one of the things I enjoy most.

I do take your point about Irish names, but have to say I love them.. the way they look on the page, the different way they sound [as if without corners...:-)] Popular ones are often Anglicised anyway [Shaun, Shivaun] but I prefer them as they are.

I love Leslie Dunkling's 'Book of Names.'

Oh, and I used to know a lad called Albert Hall. Often wonder if he grew up to organise wonderful concerts!

Sarah Duncan said...

Giles, what bad luck. At least you spotted it in time. And I love your name, tho in romantic fiction it's not a hero's name (sorry!).

Jacky, I suppose it's about time Maud is making a come back. I bet Archibald is going to shorten it to Archie pretty soon.

Paul, I know aliens have to have un-Earthly names, but they still can be easy to pronounce/spell/recognise etc.

Penny, Love your description of Irish names being without corners, I'll look upon them more kindly in future. Poor Albert Hall. You've reminded me I also once met an Edmund Hilary Everest (who called himself Ted).