- Books, Literature, and Writing
For Writers: Character Names
The Importance of Naming Your Character
When reading a story, a character's name can tell you a lot about them right from the start. If it is a familiar name that is hard to pronounce, it may take the readers out of the story. If the name is the generic common names like Joe or Tom, it can make the character not quite stand out enough when they are supposed to be. If you use a cliche' name for a certain genre, the reader may take it that the book will be full of cliche's and put it down. But if you find just the right character name, unique enough to stand out and to reflect the character's energy, but not so crazy that it takes you out of the story, it can really capture the reader in those first few minutes of reading. The following will discuss the different aspects of choosing a character name and why or why not to choose certain ones to use in your story as a writer.
Overused Popular Character Names
We have all read books and thought to ourselves at some point, this name seems to be overused just a bit. Often times is genre specific, but also when writing about a certain era, there is usually the same common names used. Here are some names that are so popular that you may want to avoid using them in your own novel.
Kathrine, Kat, Cathy, Kait, and names derived from Katherine (which is actually a long list): This name has its good points. It can be used in almost any genre and era. However, if you are looking for a deeper meaning to the name, this is one that even those who study the meaning of names can't agree on so the meaning is vague. Popular books with Katherine or names derived from it are Aragon, Game of Thrones series, East of Eden, and of course, a number of characters in Shakespear plays.
Charlotte, Charlie, Charles, Char, Lotte', Charley: This name on both sides of the gender line is very popular as well. This name at least has a clear meaning of "man" or "warrior". Another set of names that can be used in pretty much any era or genre which again, is a point to that. However, it is extremely overused., especially when the character is in a leadership position such as a king or queen or a CEO. Some books with this name are the Charley Davidson series, Pride and Prejudice, and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Elizabeth, Beth, Liz, Liza, Ellie, Isabel, Izzy, Isabella, Bella: This name and the names derived from Elizabeth, which means roughly "God is abundant", has to be one of the most popular names not only in literature but in the Western world. Some may be unfamiliar that Isabel is derived from Elizabeth in history. Often this name is used similar the Charles in the manner of a leader such as a queen, a woman who has power and is in control. Again, similar to the names above, it is a name that can be used in all eras and genres. And again, the same reasons for why it is overused. Popular books with characters using this name or one of the names derived from Elizabeth are Twilight, many characters in Shakespear's stories, and Little Women.
Biblical names such as Luke, William, Joshua, Abraham, Adam, Eve, Mary, Rachel, Rebecca, and any names derived from these names and much more I won't list: Unless you are writing a biblically based novel or of that era, the names used are so extremely common not only in literature and media but even for the top names for babies! Find a name that is a bit more out of the box. This applies similarly to Victorian era names.
There are much more overly used names I could get into or names that fall back into what is easy to name a character, this should give a quick idea of how to avoid an overused name.
There are stories that we read that no other novel can replace when it comes to the unique names being used. Here are a few names you should really avoid (unless of course, you are doing fan fiction which is something honoring the character) in a novel you write.
Iconic Names to Avoid
Lestat: First introduced in the novel, Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice, in 1976. Though there are other iconic vampire names in literature such as Dracula, Vlad the Impaler (based on a real man), and Nosferatu (though this was a film character), Lestat is a character who had a very in depth personality and life, where compared to Dracula who was seen as a shadow in the night with little to give when it comes to seeing yourself in a character. That was the more to do with the era this story was written in and what was acceptable in novels at the time than anything else. Lestat was a character you could sometimes relate to and see as human, even though he was a monster. These vampire names really belong to only one character and shouldn't be duplicated.
Beowulf: The name came from an ancient epic poem written in Old English, penned by an anonymous author. The story was about a warrior who slew monsters and ruled his land, dying after defeating a dragon. This name is iconic for the ancient poem itself and how those types of stories were shared generally by mouth and not often dictated. There are millions of poems and stories with famous characters who fought dragons and were warriors, but this name should be left alone to stand alone, if for anything, its awesome historical importance.
Lolita: A character in a novel by the same name written in 1955, was a book that was extremely controversial at the time because it dealt with a stepfather having a sexual relationship with a 12-year old stepdaughter and the issues that come about with their relationship. Using this name in novels written after were used more as a designation of a type of female, such as comparing a young girl to a prostitute, rather than the name itself being used itself. There is a heavy meaning behind using this name and it would take away from the original content if this name was chosen to be used in a current book especially if it has no correlation with what the name stands for.
Anakin: This character name comes from a very popular movie series, Star Wars. Though there were other names used like Luke, Leia, and Han, these names are fairly common in the United States and Europe. When you use the name Anakin, it is directly associated with Star Wars and using this name in a novel, many will probably wonder why unless it is fan fiction.
Hannibal: Most would know the moniker of "Hannibal the Cannibal" is known from the book "The Silence of the Lambs". I have seen this name used sparingly for background characters in a few books, but I have not seen it being used as the main character since this famous book and movie series came out.
Cinderella: Most know this name from a Disney movie by the same name, but this is a pretty old fairytale. Though unlikely to be used other than in fan fiction, this is an iconic female name that embodies the struggle of oppression and with hard work and perseverance, the goal can be met and happiness will reign.
To be frank, there are significantly more male iconic names than female. Most names as a whole, depending on the era and genre, can be used time and time again for character names. These were just some of the names of iconic characters you may want to avoid if you are looking for a unique name.
How to Create An Original Name
Anyone wanting to publish a novel wants to make every aspect of a character unique without making them cliche'. Here are some ideas that may help you create a special name for any character you create!
1. Create the personality first.
One thing that can help you make a character's name one of a kind is to create the personality first. I have another article on organizing characters that touch on this a bit that also may help you. Having characteristics and personality traits align first can tell you the type of name your character would be suited for.
You may want a strong sounding name and have made the characteristics of your character reflect this. You don't want to use a cliche' name like Brutis or tank. But you want a name that reflects the strong aspect of this character. Never go for the most obvious name or most used as discussed earlier in the article.
2. Find a name by what it means.
There are many sites that will tell you the meaning of names and have different ways of searching for the meanings as well. I tend to fall back on BehindtheName.com, which is a great site to search by not just names, but by their meanings, where their origin derives from, and much more. They also have a separate site for surnames!
Using the strong man for example from above, type in the search bar after setting the setting to search for meanings, the term strong. You get forty-two results of names that have the meaning "strong" somewhere in there.
3. Do you want where the name comes from to matter?
For some, it is important to reflect where the character's name comes from. It may reflect the heritage or where the character was born. This can play an important part on how your character acts in the book depending on the importance level of the heritage or birthplace/place of residency is to them.
Using Behindthename.com again, do the search for strong, and specify that you want them to have a name that originates from Polish heritage. Choose Polish as the language along with the other attributes and you get two names. Jarek and Gabriel. Neither name for males, overly used.
Using these few tips is how I made one of my main characters. She had part of her heritage a bit ambiguous so where the name derived from wasn't so important. I wanted the name to reflect something important about her though. One of her physical characteristics was wild red hair. What I did was type red in and specify it to be feminine. It gave me quite a few options and the name I chose was Shani. The name could have been for a male or female, but the important part of it was that it meant "red or scarlet". It came from Hebrew so that worked fine based on her background. Her name embodies one of her strongest physical characteristics and is an original name on top of it!
Cliche' and Tacky Names
Most people know when they have come across a character name that is tacky or cliche'. For example, in the vampire genre or characters (particularly female) are supposed to be overtly sexual, they name them Vixen, Vamp, Candy, Fang, Spike, names that could be stripper names or that are completely obvious cliche' names. You want to avoid these names at all cost. If you use a tacky or cliche' name, the reader is going to assume the whole story is going to be the same and may end up putting the book down. No author wants that. As mentioned above, going for the obvious names like Brutus to refer to a strong man, for many it kills the story even before it really gets started. Sometimes it works but the author has to be carrying the novel with some other very strong aspect and often needs to be an established author to get away with it.
© 2017 Tara Cochran