5 Tips For Not Screwing Up Your Character's Name by Suzanne Johnson

It's genre Monday and today Suzanne Johnson is going to cover a topic I seem to always have trouble with--naming characters in a way that isn't confusing, redundant, or just plain wrong.

For the record, these tips also apply to naming your children. :)

Take it away Suzanne...

Hello, my name is anonymous

Photo by quinn.anya

 5 Tips for Naming Your Character (aka I Screw Up So You Don’t Have To)

I’m in the throes of writing the third book in my upcoming urban fantasy series, and have spent the last hour looking at a key scene involving my heroine and a regent (think: big boss) vampire who might or might not be a murderous necromancer. So far, the vampire’s name is VAMPIRE. Catchy, eh?

Names are no different for paranormals than for romance—or any other kind of fiction. They have power. They resonate (we hope in a good or bad way, depending on the character) with readers. Sometimes we struggle to find them, and sometimes they come to us unbidden. They are important, in other words. And if we are writing series....we’re going to be stuck with them for what we hope is a very long time.

So here are a few lessons about character names I’ve learned the hard way. Think of it as “Suzanne screws up...so you don’t have to.”

The cardinal rule: LOVE the name because you never know how long you might be stuck with it.
I’m like most writers, I suspect, in using a hodgepodge of methods to come up with names. My heroine—technically the only character in my series who cannot be killed—is Drusilla Jane Jaco. What a horrific name for a young, cute blonde wizard, in retrospect. When I started the first book in the series in 2008, I thought naming her after my great-great grandmother would be fun. A little in-joke between me and, well, me. Three books later, I’m tired of finding new ways to explain how she goes by DJ and was named after great-aunt Dru and hates her name blah blah blah, because that has to be done in Every. Single. Book.

Just because Charlaine Harris got away with it doesn’t mean you should try.
Just as you don’t want names that are uber-pretentious (Lord Ar’guth’nirz) or unpronounceable (Cthulhu), you also don’t want names so plain they put your readers to sleep. In one of my manuscripts, Beth Harris was Beth Harris for 93,000 words...until I realized she was bland and vapid, and her name proved it (my apologies to any of you named Beth Harris). The exception to this rule is if your own name is Charlaine Harris. In her ridiculously popular Sookie series (technically, the Southern Vampire series, from which HBO made “True Blood”), Harris planted tongue firmly in cheek and gave the well-endowed Sookie the surname of Stackhouse. Her vampires were Bill and Eric (again tongue in cheek...Eric, who was a Viking when he was turned vampire, uses the last name Northman). But still, I wonder, now that the series has reached book number twelve or something like that, if Ms. Harris ever wishes Bill were named...Jackson, or something un-Bill-like.

Want a really cool name for your character? Use surnames. There are several good online databases of surnames, even broken down by country. One of my own favorite characters is named Mirren. And yes, he was named after Helen Mirren (but don’t tell him since he’s a big macho alpha male and would feel emasculated. I’ve managed to keep that secret from him so far).

Use a name that’s pronounced like it’s spelled.

Just for your own peace of mind. I love my merman twins Rene and Robert Delachaise and their daddy Toussaint, but I know people are going to pronounce their names wrong unless they’re from South Louisiana. It really doesn’t matter except that I like their names with the correct pronunciation: “Renny” and “Row-bear” and “Too-sont” “Della-shay.” So if I’m the only one who enjoys the way a name sounds tripping off the tongue, isn’t that kind of like a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear?
Check your history.

This is a lesson most applicable to writers of historicals or paranormals. Poor, dull Beth Harris’ love interest in my paranormal romance was a 400-year-old Irish vampire named Galen, born in 1570 in the area near Kinsale and turned vampire when he was in his early 30s. I loved Galen Murphy. He was Galen for months and months...until a savvy beta reader, damn her, did a little research and pointed out gleefully that the name Galen was not in use in Ireland in 1600—in fact, it didn’t make it there until the 1800s. So Galen bit the dust, replaced by Aodhan, a fine bit of Gaelic that today is Aidan. But he’ll always be Galen to me.

Variety is good.

Look at your cast of characters as a whole and make sure there aren’t similar names. Not starting with the same letter, certainly, but also not all hard consonant sounds or soft vowel sounds. Did I follow this advice? Of course not. It’s why, three books into my series, I still have major characters named Jean and Jake. Never mind that Jean is an undead French pirate and Jake is a honey-tongued devil from Picayune, Mississippi, who owns a Bourbon Street bar. Jean and Jake; Jake and Jean—and throw in DJ, just so we’ll have another J going. And remember Aidan, who replaced Galen? His brother’s name is Owen. Aidan and Owen. Owen and Aidan. Vowels. So confusing. Don’t do it.
So, there you have it. Now, I’m still looking at my new vampire, who has to compete on the playing field with DJ, Jake, Jean, and Alex (my only character with the good sense to take a unique, likeable, pronounceable name). Perhaps Adam? No....

In honor of names, my recommended read this month is Dead Witch Walking (The Hollows, Book 1)
, a funny, sexy urban fantasy by Kim Harrison and the first in her long-running Hollows series. In it, you’ll find Rachel, Ivy, Trent, Jenks, Kisten, and Al. (AL, you might ask? Well, yeah, he’s a demon and it’s short for Algaliarept.)


What’s been your most problematic character name?


Suzanne Johnson is an author of urban fantasy “with romantic elements.” Her first book, Royal Street, a magic-based fantasy set in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina, will be released by Tor Books on April 10, 2012. Two more in the series will be released in Fall 2012 and Spring 2013. Find Suzanne online at her Preternatura blog, or read about her books at her website.

*Look for more from Suzanne here every 3rd Monday of the month!




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