Name Game

Here is something I’ve talked a tiny bit about in social media, and want to address with a few more words here: character names.

I read so many manuscripts where the names seem like throwaways.  It seems like many writers subscribe to the “first thought best thought” school, using the first name that pops into their head. More often than not, it comes across as unconsidered. It’s Sally or Billy or Bobby or Timmy or Jane. I have nothing at all against these names, and in fact, sometimes they are the perfect choice. (Author Peter McCleery chose Bob for Bob and Joss Get Lost for the internal rhyme, and for a joke I won’t tell you about that works really well in the book. Due out 2017.) But if your character is named Billy because it’s the first thing you thought of, you can do better.

Would you name your child the first name that occurred to you? I super duper hope not. There are so many marvelous names in the world, and parents (and pet owners) spend forever coming up with just the right one. A name can reflect so much about the character and story and add a layer of meaning, even. Sometimes it’s a symbol. Sometimes it’s a metaphor. Sometimes it’s ironic. The best ones are a couple of things.

For instance: My favorite dog-friend is a miniature Schnauzer whose name is Titan. That’s funny because he’s little. But it’s also meaningful, because his owner was obsessed with Days of Our Lives, and Titan Industries is the biggest corporation in Salem. Two reasons for one name!

Fantasy writers have a double struggle, because what are the chances that your Space Ninja from an alternate plane will be named Dave? But now you have to make up a name that sounds real. I have read many unpronounceable names, and when I do, I want to throw things. Woerud or Permnk or Xch. Take a page from Suzanne Collins. Katniss is a real plant. It’s edible. Gale is a strong wind. Peeta is a kind of bread (with a minor spelling difference). These names reflect nature and the world they live in, but allow us to step right into a place we know isn’t exactly ours. (I kind of wish Peeta was named Marble Rye, though.)

Speaking of Gale, it’s Dorothy’s last name in the Wizard of Oz. Get it? Dorothy Strong Wind? That’s not an accident.

Turning off the main road for a second: Can we just not with alliterative animal names? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. My name is not Heather Human, so why are all squirrels sur-named Squirrel? Why can’t a squirrel be named Roy Feliciano? I’ll give the exception award to Betty Bunny because Betty Bunny is the only one in her family who has Bunny in her name, and her siblings are named Henry and Kate and Bill. In fact, there are lots of exceptions to this complaint, but in general, try harder.

I’m not saying that every character in your book needs to have a weighty, thoughtful name, but how can it hurt? Moreover, when I read manuscripts with throwaway names, I wonder how long the writer considered it, which then leads me to wonder how long they considered other things in the story. Your characters are at least as important as your guinea pig, so spend some quality time picking.

Here are a few I’d love to see: ChiChi, Fenella, Huxley, Kizzy, Zowie, D’Artagnan, Eustace, Remi, Miggy, Jansen, Dan (JK on that last one.)




  1. aftonnel · January 26, 2016

    I can’t get over Tad Cooper, the “dragon” on ABC’s “Galavant.” So random . . . it almost sounds like it was pulled from a roster, but I think it works.


  2. Amelia E. Browne · February 9, 2016

    Reblogged this on A.E. Browne and commented:
    Naming is hard but at the end of the day, it’s all about context.


  3. Jess Townes · February 25, 2016

    Awesome advice. The cheese-loving MC of one of my PB manuscripts is now named Colby thanks to you.


  4. lambentdelight · January 12, 2017

    ah! my lion ( pb ) is still called Loopy, .. he is a frivoulous, froliker and no other name seems to suit him…

    Liked by 1 person

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