When Marilla Cuthbert first meets Anne Shirley, she asks the 11-year-old orphan girl what her name is.
“Will you call me Cordelia?” she asks.
Anne goes on to explain that she despises her “plain, sensible” name, but thinks it would be perfectly lovely to be called what she considers such an elegant name. Marilla declines, and Anne reluctantly accepts being called by her real name, although with the caveat that it always includes the “e” on the end.
Thus, Anne “with an e,” though plainly named, cements herself as one of the most beloved of literary characters.
One of my favorite parts of writing is naming my characters. I have always loved the history of names. I read my first baby name book cover to cover when I was 8, loving the discovery of their origins and meanings. So when it comes time to naming my own characters, I have a lot of fun! But just as one poorly conceived plot device ruin a good book, so can an ill-named character take the reader out of the story.
Here’s a few of my rules when naming characters:
Seems kind of silly, doesn’t it? But just like naming your children, this is a name that is going to stick with you with for a long time, depending on how fast you write, or how successful the story has been. Make sure it’s something you’re going to like for the long haul.
Choose a name that suits the character.
In early draft of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, her spoiled Southern belle was named “Pansy O’Hara.” Can you imagine “Pansy” vowing to never go hungry again, or helping Melanie have a baby while a battle raged on around them? Thank goodness someone made her change the name to the now iconic “Scarlett!” When I started writing my murder mystery, the protagonist’s male co-sleuth was named “Reed Spencer.” But after writing just a few pages of “Reed,” I just couldn’t stand him. He wasn’t a Reed! Today, “Drew Spencer” is helping Mira solve murders!
Choose a name that works with your story’s genre and time period.
Seems simple, but I hate, hate, HATE it when I read a story that features a protagonist named something that utterly doesn’t fit with that time period or genre. Think of a cowboy romance with a heroine named “Tiffany” or “Arwen.” Or maybe a futuristic sci-fi adventure with characters named “Herman” and “Mabel.” Just doesn’t seem to work, right? It goes the same way with modern fiction: if your character was born in the 1980s, most likely her name would be something like “Jennifer” or “Jessica,” two of the most popular names of that decade, rather than something funky, like “Legend” or “Naveah.” And if you want a funky name, make sure there’s a reason for it, other than “I’m a writer and I can do what I want.” (Good reason, but probably won’t hold up with your publisher.) A great resource is the Social Security website, which lists the most popular names by decade going back to 1880.
This one’s a personal pet peeve of mine. Don’t spell your character’s name in such a way that your reader doesn’t know how to pronounce it. Unless they are listening to an audio book, it’s hard to know how an oddly-spelled name is pronounced. The exception: fantasy stories often have unusual names, but there is usually a hint from others on how to pronounce it (“rhymes with BLANK,” etc.).
Of course, sometimes we can’t control our character’s names any more than we as writers can control them. L.M. Montgomery stated in her autobiography, The Alpine Path, that the character of Anne Shirley just came to her, fully fleshed out and named, down the all-important “e.”
So, how do you decide what to name your characters? Are they named after someone in particular? Or do they just come to you?