We give characters names that show the sort of world they live in. We hunt for the right names, see how they look on paper. Naming characters with good, unique names takes effort.
When we are laying down the first draft of any story, some characters become an example of “Chekhov’s Gun.” If the character is not a protagonist or a sidekick, does this character warrant you hunting up a unique name for them? If not, don’t bother giving them a name.
Too many named characters can be confusing to the reader. We want the reader to stay focused on the protagonist(s) and their story.
The second draft is where we make every effort to find the distractions we may have inadvertently written into the manuscript. Extraneous named characters is an easy one to fix. Simply remove their name, and identify them in general terms. The reader will move on and forget about them.
I have learned several difficult lessons about naming characters.
Rule one: Only give names to characters who advance the plot.
You don’t have time to waste on fruitless internet searches, so when you introduce a named character, ask yourself if it is someone the reader should remember.
Are they a disposable character, just a walk-on? Even if the walk-on offers information the protagonist and reader must know, it doesn’t mean they need to be named. Some throw-away characters will give us clues to help our protagonist along the way. Others might show us something about the protagonist, give us a clue into their personality or past.
Do they return later in the story or do they act as part of the setting? Are they just part of the ambiance of a scene? If they don’t return, don’t give them a name.
My current work in progress has a passage that takes place in an inn. It involves a conversation overheard from a table adjacent to my two protagonists and their sidekicks. The conversation between the merchant and his sons gives my protagonists information they need, but they are in this scene for only one purpose: to be overheard and don't appear again. For this reason, they are never named.
Rule Two: No two characters should have names that begin and end with the same letters.
In the Tower of Bones Series, I have a main character named Marya. She is the protagonist’s love interest and is central to the series. In 2009 when I was writing the first book, a side character was important enough to have a name. My mind must have been in a rut when I thought that one up: for some stupid reason I named her Marta.
You can probably see where that went—the two names are nearly identical.
What is even worse, halfway through the first draft of the second book in the series, Marta became a character with a major storyline. She actually becomes Marya’s mother-in-law in the third book. Fortunately, I was in the final stage of editing book one, Tower of Bones, for publication, and immediately realized I had to make a major correction: Marta was renamed Halee.
My rule now is to NEVER name two characters in such a way that the first and last letters of their names are the same. To avoid that circumstance, I try to never have two that even begin with the same letter.
Rule Three: Avoid fancy spellings, because ease of pronunciation is crucial.
How will that name be pronounced when it is read out loud? You may not want to get too fancy with the spelling. I didn’t understand that concept when I first began writing seriously. When I named my characters, I was too concerned with how the words looked on the page. I never considered that they might be read aloud.
My third book was Huw the Bard. I love that book and that character. It never occurred to me that most people wouldn’t know that Huw is Welsh for Hugh and is pronounced the same. I was raised around people of both Welsh and Irish origin. I wanted Huw to have that cultural flavor, but that spelling choice has been a problem since publication. Most people are unaware that a "W" is actually a "Double U" - UU -2 U(s). It is pronounced "Yoo" or "oo" (like goo) in Welsh and in old English words.
I have another character in my Tower of Bones series named Friedr. This is pronounced Free-der. My own son never says it right, so that name is a problem for readers and if I wasn’t 5 books into the series, I would change it.
Audio books are the new “must do” way to get your work into the hands of “readers.” Nowadays, when we write a book, we need to consider how a name will be pronounced when it is read out loud. It might be a good idea to be mindful of the spelling so that the narrator can easily read that name aloud. If you are just beginning your career as an author, you probably don’t realize how important this is.
To wrap this up,
Connie J. Jasperson is a published poet and the author of nine novels. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. A founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group, she can be found blogging regularly on both the craft of writing and art history at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.