Characterization – The Art of Naming Characters #amwriting

When laying down the first draft of a work in progress, I always give every walk-on a name, right down to the dog. I generally write with an outline, but during NaNoWriMo, my stream of consciousness takes over, and the story veers away from the outline.

namesOnce NaNoWriMo is over, I try to shave my cast of thousands down to a reasonable level.

What is the optimal number of characters for a book? Some say only four, others fifteen. I say introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but use common sense.

I now have 3 hard and fast rules for deciding who should be named and who should not. Sometimes I am good at following them. Other times—not.

  1. Is this character someone the reader should remember?Even if they offer information the protagonist and reader must know, it doesn’t necessarily mean they must be named. Throw-away characters provide clues to help our protagonist complete their quest. Also, they can show us something about the protagonist and give hints about their personality or past.
  2. Does the person return later in the story, or are they just set dressing? Are they part of the scenery of, say, a coffee shop or a store? They don’t need a name if they are only a component of world-building.
  3. Only give names to characters who advance the plot.

In my experience as a reader, the pacing an author is trying to establish comes to a halt when a character who is only included for the ambiance has too much time devoted to them. If they are set dressing, they should be nameless.

When we are writing a scene, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do these people advance the plot?
  • Do they help or hinder the protagonist in some crucial way?
  • Do they provide essential background information we won’t get any other way?
  • Is their presence a necessary part of world-building?

storybyrobertmckeeTake a second look at the characters in each scene and remove those with no real purpose. (Save everything you cut in a separate file—you might want to reuse these characters someday.)

This is true of a novel, a screenplay, or a short story. Names alert us, telling us a character will have an important role in the story.

  • Ask yourself if the character is an example of “Chekhov’s Gun.”
  • Does this character serve a purpose the reader must know? If not, don’t give them a name.

Novelists can learn a lot about writing a good, concise scene from screenwriters.

  • An excellent book on craft, and one I highly recommend, is Story by Robert McKee.

We want the reader to stay focused on the protagonist(s) and their story. In the second draft, we hunt for the distractions we may have inadvertently introduced in our first draft. Having too many named characters in a scene is easy to fix.

  • We remove side characters from the scene if they have nothing to contribute.
  • Walk-on characters can be identified in general terms. The reader will move on and forget about them.

When Joley entered the café, all the seats were taken but one at the counter between a man in paint-stained coveralls and a woman with a briefcase at her feet. She caught Nathan’s eye, and he brought her a coffee. “We need to talk,” she whispered.

“I get off at four,” he replied. He refilled several coffees at the counter, then carried the pot to the tables.

The tendency to make every character a memorable person is one we can’t indulge. The reader will become confused if too many characters are named.

When I first began writing full-time, I learned a lesson the hard way about naming characters. I have a main character named Marya in one of my early novels, and she’s central to the series. Also, in the first book, a side character was important enough to have a name, but my mind must have been in a rut when I thought that one up. For some stupid reason, I named her Marta.

You can probably see where this is going—the two names are nearly identical.

name quote, richard II shakespeareWhat is even worse, halfway through the first draft of the second book in the series, Marta suddenly was a protagonist with a significant storyline. She actually becomes Marya’s mother-in-law in the third book. Fortunately, I was in the final stage of editing book one for publication. I immediately realized I had to make a major correction: Marta was renamed Halee.

But how do names play out in real life? In my family, “Robert” is a recurring name.

My father was named Robert, and my two brothers are both named Robert (with different middle names). My mother’s younger brother is also a Robert. My younger brother’s son is named Robert, as is his son. We have a Bob, a Little Bob, a Rob, a Bobby, a Robby, and a Quatro. Two Bobs are no longer with us, but the confusion continues with each new generation of Roberts in our family.

I took this absurdity to an extreme in Billy Ninefingers. In Waldeyn, the most common boy’s name is William, which is why Billy MacNess embraces the name his mercenaries give him after the injury – Billy Ninefingers. In that novel, anyone named William generally goes by their last name or their trade. Think Mason, Sawyer, etc., etc.

Other than Billy Ninefingers, where the overuse of one name was intentional and integral to the story, my personal rule is to NEVER name two characters so that the first and last letters of their names are the same.

I try never to have two names that begin with the same letter, but that becomes difficult.

But in a scene, who should go and who should stay? And what is the optimal number of characters for a book? Some say only four, others fifteen.

I feel an author should introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but should also use common sense.

One last thing to consider: how will that name be pronounced when read aloud? You may not want to get too fancy with the spelling, so a reader can easily read that name aloud. You may not think that matters, but it does.

I read Tad Williams’ Memory Sorrow and Thorn series aloud to my youngest daughter when she was old enough to appreciate and understand it. (I was too cheap to pay for cable television, and it kept my teenager from being bored.) I will just say that while his narrative is brilliant and engrossing, many of those names took some practice to say without stumbling.

Epic Fails meme2Names are also a component of world-building. While recording Tales from the Dreamtime, a novella consisting of three fairy tales, my narrator had trouble pronouncing the names of two characters. This happened because I had written the names so they would feel foreign and look good on paper.

Despite my experience of reading fantasy books aloud to my children, it didn’t occur to me that the names were unpronounceable as they were written. We ironed that out, but that hiccup taught me to spell names the way they’re pronounced whenever possible.

In conclusion, don’t confuse your readers by giving unimportant walk-on characters names.

Never give two characters names that are nearly identical.

Do consider making your spellings of names and places pronounceable just in case you decide to have your novel made into an audiobook.


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18 responses to “Characterization – The Art of Naming Characters #amwriting

  1. Good tips – totally agree on making sure you don’t name characters with names where the first and last letters of their names are the same – I get so confused as a reader when people do that

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello! I do too, which is why I was so peeved at myself for not noticing that when I wrote the first manuscript. But writing is a process and thank heavens for good editors! Irene spotted it and it all worked out. Thank you for stopping by today!


  2. Even though I kinda knew this about naming characters, I don’t always follow the rules…but your post reminded me of the importance when naming characters! Helpful post, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I use many of the same rules! Naming characters is more important than some authors realize, and the ones you choose can make or break the story.

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  4. When I name a character, I think of the character’s personality. Of course, this comes from my own recollections of people in my life. For instance, I think of someone named David as a good person, not the villain because of the Davids I’ve come across in my life. I, also, try to pick names that are not unusual or have difficult spelling in hopes they stick to the reader. I avoid names that rhyme at all cost.

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  5. Firstly, before I call into question all you have said, I agree with you and the others that have commented completely. You and those that have commented are all correct. Yet it seems literature disputes this correctness.
    Robert Jordan, Mervyn Peake, George R R Martin, Charles Dickens, Tolstoy (Leo, and Nikolai) and Tolkien sold millions of books individually and they name not only every character but their cats, dogs and the mice that inhabit the house.
    I often must scan back to remember which of the thousand or so Aes Sedai Robert Jordan is talking about (he names over six hundred of them- looked that up on the net).
    I never have more than six or seven named characters in a book but perhaps “we” are wrong.
    Lol and for Karen with the first comment. Marvel. ten of the biggest films in the last two years. Characters are Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones etc. What’s a writer to do?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Ray! Another Mervyn Peake fan! Tastes change, and what was appealing to us is sometimes frustrating to others. It takes patience to wade through a book like ‘Titus Groan.’ The Gormenghast trilogy is fantasy, but it is heavily literary, as are the works of Theodore Sturgeon, such as ‘Venus Plus X.’ Readers who are reading for the joy of words will do it and will enjoy every morsel. And yes, one of the problems I had with Jordan–I had trouble making sense of all characters and plot threads and the wild tangents. I resorted to keeping a notebook as if it were a college class, lol!

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      • I am a fan of Peake, have reread Gormenghast a few times. I had forgotten Theodore, may have to fish a couple of his out.
        Lol- I am beginning to wish I had not restarted the wheel of time from the beginning. On book seven again and remembering why I was glad to finish the series’ first time. still only eight books to go………Argh. Oh, and have you read “Gloriana” by Michael Moorcock. It is a homage to Peake but even more outlandish and literary. Well worth a read if you do not get easily offended. It is Moorcock and he often sets out to offend.

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  6. Moorcock is weird. He loved Peake. Wished to make Peake available to the masses. You have read him and so know. Add sex violence and emotion. (Peake missed those human traits) and you have “Gloriana”. An alternative Elizabeth. The First.

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