Character Names: Associations

One of the things beginning writers are warned against is starting multiple character names with the same letter of the alphabet. That’s because readers will inevitably get confused as to who the character is. In other words, don’t have a David and a Derrick in the same book. I failed to heed this warning when writing Dirty Proof, my first mystery. In fact, I failed badly. Frank Dragovic’s sister is named Stephanie; his fellow detective is named Sarah; and his love interest is named Suzanne. Aarrgghhhhh! I wish I could do this over, but, alas, I can’t. 

Another warning to all writers (not just beginning ones) is that in naming characters, it’s important to make the name fit with the era. I cringe when I read book reviews of romance historical fiction in which female characters have names such as Sienna or Courtney. For fiction to be believable to the reader, character names must ring true. 

One great way to get first names right is to use the Census Bureau information on-line and look at the listings of the most popular girls’ and boys’ names for each decade. I have used this source countless times, especially when writing workbooks, activity pages, and short historical pieces for classroom activity. Another name resource is old high school yearbooks. Or alumni magazines. I’m particularly fond of  using the obituaries in Harvard Magazine as a possible source for character names.

Before I wrote my first novel (She’s on First) I read many, many how-to books on writing the novel. Several of those books recommended naming characters after streets. This, if I recall, was so that a writer could always claim she didn’t name her characters after anybody in particular: she named them after a street — “This character isn’t named after a real person, Judge! She’s named after a street!”

During the time I was writing She’s on First we were traveling to Texas almost once a year to visit Phil’s parents. So as we drove I jotted down possible names, using towns, rivers, streets, and advertising signs in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas. And of course I tried to match names to a character’s “character.” Among the character names that I particularly enjoyed naming in She’s on First are Harland Abilene, catcher; Bobby Knuff, first baseman; and Frank Laughing, second baseman.

I confess that I made up the last name “Mowerinski” when I was trying to combine outfield grass with a Polish last name. Once I made it up, I loved it, and within seconds I immediately created a lawn-mower business for Big Al to build up after his retirement from baseball. 

It always kind of bothered me a bit that I had made up this name entirely, rather than taking an existing Polish name that seemed to fit the character. However, it rather pleases me that if you type the word “mowerinski” into Google, even now, 33 years after the publication of the novel, all hits go directly to She’s on First. 

The star of my early reader books is Waltur, a bear who misunderstands figures of speech: he takes them literally. Waltur is featured in two books, each book containing three stories. The first book is Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke, and the second book is Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner.

The most frequent question audiences ask about the Waltur books is: “Why did you spell Waltur with a U, and not an E.” I reply that I spelled it that way because it just seemed right to me. For one thing, the UR goes with URsine. For another, bears growl, and to me a growl sounds more URRRR than ERRR

There’s a negative result of my having spelled the name Waltur. The effect is that about 10=15% of people who write to me about the book say, “I love your bear Wilbur. He is so funny.”

Aarrgghhhhh! (Or should that be Uurrgghhhhh!?) My bear is not Wilbur, he is Waltur! 

But I realize that some people cannot keep names straight. They constantly mix up Phil and Paul, for example, or Joe and Joel, or Sheila and Sara. For that part of the population which mixes up names, be the names written or oral, it’s possible that there is no help. I suspect, though, that my using the “u” instead of “e” leads such people to immediately shunt the name Waltur to the brain cell that houses the name Wilbur.

So, when you’re thinking of naming a character in fiction, give careful consideration to whether the name is one that sits on the cusp of confusion. If it does, consider whether you can live with reader name mix-ups, or whether you can’t. If you can’t, consider changing the name of your character.

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Barbara Gregorich URges you to read Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner and Other Stories.

2 thoughts on “Character Names: Associations

  1. This is a great post and an interesting topic. I myself have had the challenge of coming up with more Asian names (from diverse ethnicities due to where I live) in my cyberpunk novel (where names are more moniker-ish). That was my editor’s feedback so it’s something I had to heed. Doesn’t make it any easier though.

    Anyway I loved this post. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

    • Thanks for the comment, Stuart, and good luck in coming up with the diverse-ethnic Asian names. It sounds as if your editor gave you solid advice. I find the job of coming up with names a lot of fun — hope you do, too.

      Like

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