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Picking The Right Name For Your Character

December 8th, 2017

Last week I mentioned the Debut Dagger Competition. I’ve just been on the Crime Writers’ Association website again and discovered that they have a page of excellent crime writing advice by well-known authors plus tips for entrants to the competition. So if you are considering having a go, it’s definitely worth taking a look.

This week I’ve had another great contribution from Writers Bureau tutor, David Kinchin – about naming your characters. So, rather than looking at bits and pieces, I’m going to provide some general advice, followed by what he has to say on the subject.

Choosing the right names for your characters is crucial. You can suggest a great deal about a person’s age and background by the name you give. All names have popular connotations and associations which the reader subconsciously tunes into – they create instant mental pictures. For example, Nikki is a young art student with a way-out dress sense, while Cynthia is a rather staid housewife in her mid-60s with an immaculately clean house in the leafy suburbs.

See the images the names conjure? It’s important that you select a name that accurately reflects the personality and background of the person you are creating. As a rule, aim for short, sharp powerful names for strong characters and longer, fussier names for weaker characters. You might want to avoid ‘trendy’ names which quickly go out of fashion because they will date your novel.

If you’re writing a period piece, ensure that the names you use are accurate for the era. No Victorian lovers called Chardonnay and Dylan please! You also need to do your homework if writing about earlier historical periods. Albert, for example, although perfect for the later Victorian era, would never have been used in Elizabethan times.

Also, beware of being unintentionally funny by assigning a totally unsuitable name to a member of your cast. Kevin Bloggs may be a great plumber or electrician, but he’d make a poor spaceship captain in the 23rd century!

David says:

“So what is the secret to a good name in fiction?  Well often it’s simplicity.  James Bond didn’t get shaken and stirred by having too many syllables.  That said, the name is very often the first thing you learn about a character and it really needs to fit comfortably.  It needs to feel appropriate too.  Rebus and Morse are two very good examples of well-chosen but simple names for police officers.  Both are actually types of code and as the role of a detective is to crack the code of clues the author is really half-way there with that choice of a good name.

“Charles Dickens took the naming of characters to a totally different level.  Who would want to be taught by Wackford Squeers, cared for by Mr and Mrs Bumble or married to Jerry Cruncher?  These are examples of comic grotesques I feel.  Dickens was more circumspect when it came to the names of heroes and heroines, people with whom he wanted you to connect: David Copperfield, Oliver Twist.

“Sometimes authors simply stumble upon a good iconic name almost by accident.  The most famous example is Sterrinford Holmes.  Would he have had the same success if Conan Doyle hadn’t had second thoughts and plumped for Sherlock Holmes?   Sometimes you have a manuscript and it can be transformed by the simple sweep of a pen:

“Names have a way of really stamping themselves on our consciousness.  Peter Pan, Luke Skywalker, Jack Reacher, Fagin, Shylock, Moriarty, Cormoran Strike, Harry Potter, Scarlett O’Hara, Derek Trotter, Private Pike… can we imagine them as anyone else?

“So when you write your next piece of fiction really think hard about naming your characters, because it’s so important that you get this right.  Happy writing… “


David worked his way from being a Writers Bureau student – through writing columns for the local paper, drama for radio, short stories/articles for magazines in the UK/USA – to being a Bureau tutor for well over twenty years, an editor and writing four textbooks on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 


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