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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Seeking Zoticus Weatherwax: Tips for Naming Fictional Characters

In his painfully funny 2006 book, Famous Writing School, a Novel, Stephen Carter’s writing teacher-protagonist advises his students to seek character names in the obituaries. But although Carter’s bumbling protagonist offers mostly dubious advice, that tip is a keeper. Obits are full of great names. I keep a list in a notebook by the breakfast table. I haven’t yet written about Normal Peasley or Lamia Trowbridge, but they’re ready when I need them.

My favorite name source is spam, although, since I increased my security, it isn't as colorful as it used to be. Every morning I used to cull a few from my “bulk” inbox before I deleted them. I still can always perk up a story by subjecting my heroine to a blind date with Zoticus Weatherwax or Hassan Snively.

Creative monikers don’t just add color and humor to storytelling. They help the reader keep track of a large cast, and offer a shorthand reminder of their identities. Instead of calling the pizza delivery guy “Bob,” if you give him an interesting ethnicity, a cowboy hat and a name like Galveston Ngyen, readers will remember him when he shows up dead 50 pages later.

Here are some basic guidelines for naming characters.

1) Name only players, not spear carriers. Don’t clutter the story with too many names. A named character needs to play a significant role. Just call him “the pizza guy” if his only purpose is to deliver pepperoni with extra cheese.

2) Choose names that are different from each other. Names that begin with the same letter can be confusing on the page: no rival boyfriends named Tim and Tom unless your heroine can’t tell them apart either.

Note: this doesn’t apply to real or well-known characters. An agent once told me I couldn’t put characters named Morgan and Merlin in the same novel. Rules are helpful, but abolishing the entire Grail saga is a bit much.

3) Don’t change names mid-story. In real life, an indigenous person called Fall-in-the-Fire might change his name to Jump-in-the-Pond after his vision quest, but it’s better to use the same identification throughout. That way Reader-of-Fiction won’t morph into Throws-Book-Out-Window.

4) Choose names to fit the era. A recent editing client called a contemporary fifty-year-old librarian “Mildred”—an unlikely name for a Baby Boomer. I suggested Linda or Judy. On the other hand, Linda and Judy don’t even rank in the top thousand names for the last decade. If your character is under twelve, try Madison, Kayla or Ada.

I made a period mistake myself when reworking an old story. Morgan was an unusual name for a girl when I wrote the piece fifteen years ago. Now it’s way more common than Anne.

You can look up American baby names by decade at the Social Security Administration site.

But remember US, Canadian, Aussie and Brit names differ. Hyphenated names like Jean-Claude and Mary-Ellen are rare in the UK. But Zara, Nigella and Callum—all popular in England now—don’t appear on any US lists. (But keep Nigella out of that Regency Romance. Cross check with your Jane Austen collection.) One of the top 25 names for Canadian girls is Brooklyn--who knew all those polite Canadians were such New York-ophiles? (Wadda you lookin' at?)

UK names by decade are available at the government statistics website.

For naming Canadians try the Perfect Baby Names site. And for Australians (including Aboriginal names and their meanings) try Babynology.

5) Don’t fake foreign or antique names. Your Roman gladiator can be named Brutus or Africanus, but don’t try Waynus or Garthus. (Ancient Roman first names were not numerous, which is why they called their kids stuff like “Quintus” and “Octavian” (literally, “five” and “eight.”) As adults, Romans often earned Mafia-style nicknames. The poet Ovid was known as Ovidius Naso—Ovid the Nose.)

Genealogy sites are great for historical names, and for contemporary foreign names, surf around the many baby-naming websites.

6) Give your character’s name a Google before going forward. I recently wanted to name a porn star Peter McHugh until a Google search showed a local County Supervisor with that name.

7) Avoid over-used names. It’s hard to know these if you don’t slog through weekly slush piles, but I’ve seen agents complain that all variations of Catherine/Kate/Caitlin have become ho-hum. Ditto Jake/Jack. Browse new books in your genre for patterns.

8) Run a final search-and-replace if you change a character’s name. That’s one I learned the hard way. I sent out requested partials to two agents before I realized I’d reverted to the old name for an entire chapter. That might not have been the only reason for my rejections, but I know it didn't help. Sigh.
PS—I’ve had some great responses to this post both in the comments section and via email.
1) Hampshireflyer gives a scary example of why you REALLY want to Google all your character names before you publish them. Especially in the UK. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-416690/Cabaret-singer-wins-libel-claim-crime-writer.html
2) Paul Fahey says for foreign names, he finds the
Writers Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon very useful, although he wishes it had more cross-referencing. 



Blogger cc93443 said...

Great advice, Anne. I would, also, like to add that if you work for a public agency and come in contact with people's names daily, keep a list at work!! My all-time favorite is Lavinia Glick, culled from an overdue library book notice list.

April 4, 2010 at 12:09 PM  
Blogger christineA said...

Great post. Two of my favorites: Teaman Treadway and Trudy Troutman, together of course, in a romance. Trudy actually gave me permission but I think Teaman is a "B" movie star now so, probably not. Never thought to Goggle a name to check for conflict. Good advice.

April 4, 2010 at 12:44 PM  
Blogger Elaine AM Smith said...

Great post
Your advice about where and how to find names is so helpful.I check my character's names for meaning as well. Names are important.

April 4, 2010 at 1:04 PM  
Blogger Alison Stevens said...

Great advice, Anne. I particularly like the reminder that popular names differ between the US, UK, and Canada (and Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, I would imagine). Not something I would have thought to consider!

April 5, 2010 at 12:16 AM  
Blogger Churadogs said...

Are names copywrite-able? Or sue-able over? Like if you named a character John Winkleman and up popped about a dozen John Winklemen threatening to sue you?? Or would John have a case only if he could prove you personally knew him and had deliberate malice by putting him in your novel as a thoroughly bad character? If you bought and wore that t-shirt saying, "Be careful or I'll put you in my novel" considered sufficient self-defence against lawsuits, especially by John?

April 5, 2010 at 6:43 AM  
Blogger annerallen said...

Churadogs, I think Mirandizing by tee-shirt might be a good idea for all fiction writers.

I've never heard of a lawsuit by a real person who's had a fictional character named after him--but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened. With a name like Anne Allen (kind of the female version of John Smith) I probably have grounds to sue a lot of writers.

Has anybody out there heard of a libel lawsuit from a person whose name appears in a novel?

April 5, 2010 at 9:38 AM  
Blogger Clare C. Greenstreet said...

I'm always starting character names with the same letter. And I have a character called Kate. But all my names just seem to work for the characters.

April 5, 2010 at 10:47 AM  
OpenID hampshireflyer said...

Anne, it's happened in the UK - arguably one more reason why English libel law seriously needs an overhaul, but Jake Arnott had to pay damages to a cabaret singer for doing this: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-416690/Cabaret-singer-wins-libel-claim-crime-writer.html

Might be a special case because Arnott's books depend on having a lot of real people in the background, but I know there was also a famous English libel lawsuit in the 20s or 30s (which must have set the case law for this one) where an author had picked an uncommon name for an accountant character which happened to belong to a real accountant.... I think the court held that the author should have shown reasonable diligence by checking the register of chartered accountants.

I'm *95* per cent sure that this wasn't a satirical law report made up by AP Herbert...

April 5, 2010 at 1:10 PM  
Blogger Ann Marie Wraight said...

I have been guilty in the past of using 2 Scottish names beginning with D and then confusing them at the beginning of the book. It's not that difficult (for me) to do things like that! Thank goodness my closest friend (who's Scottish) pointed it out to me!! I didn't even notice..
Shame on me.

REALLY GOOD POST - With loads of places to check.

April 6, 2010 at 1:21 PM  
Blogger Anna said...

Great post! I used to have a job that required doing a lot of mass mailings - there were some name gems on those lists! I actually just had to rename a character (after working with the manuscript for over a year) because I realized, rather belatedly, how very similar her name sounded to the main character's. Oops! :-)

April 6, 2010 at 7:21 PM  
Blogger Peggy Bechko said...

Excellent post on the names. It's funny, there are so many resources from which to draw names and yet people still do so many strange things with them. Oh, and Anna is right - make your characters names distinct from one another. Very confusing to the reader (not to mention the writer) if names are too similiar.

April 9, 2010 at 7:48 AM  
OpenID atsiko said...

Awesome post, Anne.

Google is God people. And not only for names.
In order to sue for libel, you need to have a very strong case and how that grievous harm was done. So, for most authors, this will not be a problem. If you don't find an issue on Google, you're probably safe. But keep in mind that there are a lot of "famous" people out there who just don't happen to be famous to you.

April 9, 2010 at 11:28 AM  
Blogger Christine H said...

I named my characters by creating a new language.

Yes, I'm doing it the hard way.

April 10, 2010 at 7:08 AM  

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