Thursday, April 15, 2010

Allen on Building a Book of Brilliant Names

Anne R. Allen, fellow Genre Wars contributor and author of The Best Revenge, discusses the importance of picking appropriately striking names for your characters. Excerpts:
In his painfully funny 2006 book, Famous Writers 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. ...

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.
Read the whole thing. Oh, how right Allen is here. I've been let down numerous times by mystery novels revealing a bad guy in the end with such a bland name that he never stuck in my mind as a suspect in the first place. At the other extreme lie fantasy authors who invent hopelessly outlandish monikers for their characters, unaware that such inapproachable strangeness makes them equally forgettable. Although most of my namings fall into the insipid category (a result of culling them from hardback spines and the phonebook), I can think of at least one time where I apprehended an unusual name successfully. In "Thirty-One Hundred," my protagonist owes his identity to an old friend named Wofford Ptolemy Boyd III. He wisely went by Ted most of the time.

(Picture: 2009 by


Michelle D. Argyle said...

Great post! Sadly, I rarely come up with really great names. They're usually boring. I should try and think up some more exciting ones. The best one I've come up with so far is Eolande. Woohoo.

B. Nagel said...

Luckily, I work with a diverse cast of characters on the desk and electronically through interlibrary loan.

I am seldom at a loss for new and unique names.

Unknown said...

I tend to just make up a series of name-like syllables when in a bind.

I do hoard some names, but those are mostly for roleplaying game characters, like my Shadowrun Troll demolitions expert named Zap Rausdauer (old terrible movie called "The Final Sacrifice), or my Dwarf Wizard/Transmuter called Daedalus Twip (We drove through Daedalus Township once, and the sign was small so it just said "Twp.")

dolorah said...

Names are a special project for me. I've got a list I've been collecting over the years. Whenever I come across a name that intrigues me, I collect it.

Sometimes with permission. Most of the names I collect have an Irish/Gaelic/Viking sound to them. Just an author's quirk.

Which reminds me; Loren Eaton is an inspiring character name. I've already filled in a bit of his character profile. Would it bother you to lend your name to my collection?

Loren Eaton said...


Yeah, most of mine are pretty dull. In my latest, I think the protagonists are named "Jeremey" and "Linda." Excitement, here we come!

Loren Eaton said...


Ah, yet another perk of library life! It almost overcomes accidentally stumbling upon love in the stacks.

Loren Eaton said...


Daedalus Twip totally sounds like something out of British SF, by which I mean it sounds like PURE AWESOME!!1!

Loren Eaton said...


I have no objections as long as you make "Loren" female, no taller than 5'2", blonde and not a serial killer.

Post Script: Seriously, I glad someone likes my name. It has caused a few troubles in life.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Names. I started out my WIP with a mother and daughter named Iris and Ivy. People said the names were too close so I changed them to Lily and Ivy. Then I decided to title the book EVE HAD A DAUGHTER, so I changed the mother to Eve and left the daughter as Ivy. Then people said they were too similar so I changed Ivy to Christine. Now does Christine seem right as a victim of a venous mother? Maybe it should be Eve and Carrie. But I think someone already used that.

Loren Eaton said...

Goodness, Patti, that's a lot of name changing there. Do you ever get the mixed up and insert the wrong one? I've had that happen.