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I'm getting close to writing my first novel (plotter here - I develop the book first), but I do not yet have names for my main characters. I found this question, which helped me in that area, but now that I'm starting to find names, I have another question.

A comment on that question said that names (specifically fantasy names) should not start with the same letter, or the reader will confuse the characters. That's obviously the comment author's opinion, but it got me wondering: are there rules or guidelines I should be aware of when naming characters? I'm thinking specifically of fantasy or sci-fi works, where the names will be largely unfamiliar, but this question can apply to any genre.

Are there rules/guidelines for naming characters?


Note: And before someone asks, no, this is not a duplicate of the above linked question. That question deals largely with discovering names, and answers can and do include such things as brainstorming, translating, and name generators. This question deals with finding the right name. Once I have a list of names that sound half way decent, I want to make sure I get the right one.

Overlap: That being said, there is some overlap. Strategies discussed in this question might (and probably will) be useful in finding names.

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    Well, the thing that comes to my mind instaltly is avoid letting your character names reveal the story when you don't want to. Just don't make them absolutely obvious (except if you are writing a parody). A really ridiculous example but lets say you don't want to name the killer in a serious story Killer especially if the reader does not know who is the killer :) – Teddy Markov Dec 17 '16 at 17:00
  • In my opinion, there aren't many rules for this kind of thing in writing. As long as the name doesn't alienate the reader, isn't too similar to the name of another character, and isn't copied from an iconic novel, you should be fine. As for the nitty-gritty, you can always think of characters names as to the type of character they are, their gender, their ethnicity. But, these aren't necessarily rules, just things to keep in mind when naming. – RE Lavender Dec 17 '16 at 18:15
  • I'm only likely to get character names confused from the same initial letter if they are the worst kind of pointlessly, polysyllabic names with obscure pronunciation rules... as i'll be bleeping over them like Linus van Pelt with the Brothers Karamazov. – Spagirl Dec 17 '16 at 18:34
  • You might enjoy this brief essay on the art of onomastics ghostlypopulations.com/2010/08/… – idiotprogrammer Dec 17 '16 at 20:13
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    Just wondering why you wrote 'avoid' instead of 'consider'. – user6035379 Dec 19 '16 at 17:07
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Distinctness

When you create characters for a novel, it may help you to think like an animator creating characters for a cartoon: you want them to be distinct from each other not only in behavior, but also in appearance.

In a movie with real actors, distinctness comes from the distinct faces that humans have. In a cartoon, where the faces of the characters don't have the detail of real humans, the simplified features are exaggerated: one character has a very long face, another a very round one; one character has a long nose, another a protruding chin; and so on. As we don't always see a character's face, and want the character to be recognizable easily even from afar or in fast paced action, we also give them different colors and a distinct silhouette:

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Example by Mike Corriero from The use of Silhouettes in Concept Design

In a novel, the reader cannot see the character. And even if you describe the outward appearance of your characert, you don't repeat that description every time that character is mentioned.

In a novel, the "face" of a character is his name.

Your readers can only tell John and Bob apart by their names. So make their names distinct enough.

But what is disctinct enough? Certainly Henry and John are distinct enough and no one will confuse those two characters. John and Joan will probably be distinct because those names strongly suggest different genders, although readers may interpret the similarity in their names as signifying some kind of relation between these characters. Such a relation will be expected when your character names are variations of each other, as in Henriette and Henrietta. The similarity between these names must be motivated or it will be irritating.

Similarity can lie in all parts of a name: the first letter (Henry & Horton), the vowels (John & Rob), the "rhyme" (Francine & Janine), and so on. Similarity is also relative: When you have only two characters in your short story, Ben and Rob will appear distinct enough, but in a novel with Hector, Fyodor, Maximilian, Wulfram, and Mordecai, the shortness, commonality, and similar sounds ("b") will make Ben and Rob appear quite related.

Personally, I try to make the names of my protagonists and main side characters as distinct from each other as possible. I even try to make them distinct from place names in the same novel – I don't send Allen to Alaska, for example.

At the same time, you shouldn't worry too much about similarities when they become too hard to avoid. If you have more characters than letters in the alphabet, they cannot all begin with their own letter. If you write a historical novel, you must use the names that people had, even if they had the same names. And so on. So I try for distinctness, but if other things become more important, some similarity doesn't give me gray hair, either.

Meaning

What I find more important than distinctness, which usually is not difficult to achieve, is a name's meaning. And with meaning I don't mean the etymology of a name. Most readers will not know the etymologic meaning of most names, and if you make up names for a fantasy novel, that name will be etymologically meaningless.

But names suggest personal traits to us. For example, certain names – and names with certain elements such as a specific ending – are predominantly given to people of a certain gender and therefore suggest a certain gender when we read it. Most people in the US will think that John is a man and Sarah is a woman. In some cultures, names that end in "-a" are mostly female.

Gender is one meaning that names convey, age is another. Different names are popular at different times, and therefore different names are more common among people of different ages. Old-fashioned names, that were popular fifty years ago, will make readers think of people of middle age; names from a hundred years ago will make people think of old people.

While gender and age of a name are easy to research, there are other meanings that are more difficult to grasp. Marketers have researched the meaning of the sounds that they use to make up brand names; psychologists have researched how certain personal names suggest attractiveness, intelligence, wealth, humor, and other personal traits. This research is, as yet, in its beginning stages and very limited. Only a small selection of names has been studied, and only a small variety of traits; studies on the meaning of sound yield contradictory results for all but a small number of phonemes. But some people, for example the writer Ursula Le Guin, have a natural talent to "hear" this meaning and find names that fit their characters like a glove.

I cannot recommend a fail-safe strategy to find character names with a fitting meaning, but the question you link to has a lot of information on this aspect of naming and I strongly suggest that you consider it carefully.

Literary Usage

You may want to avoid giving your characters names that have been used in other novels, especially if those names are rare or made up. Frodo is taboo, as is Harry Potter.

Other names appear to represent the stereotypical heroine, and many authors use a variation of them. For example, the name Katherine and its many variations and close relatives are given to such a large number of YA protagonists and movie heroines that it has become empty and meaningless. Some recommend to avoid Kate, Kay, Kathleen, Caitlin, Cathy, Cat, and so on for that reason; I think it makes that name a wonderfully neutral placeholder that facilitates reader identification.


Studies

The following is a list of some studies on sound and meaning in (English) brand names. Some of these articles may be paywalled, but may be accessible from a university library through their subscription. This list is the result of a very quick search I did when brainstorming the names for my last book and probably nowhere near exhaustive. But it may give you an idea what to look for and where to start. Use Google Scholar's "Similar Articles" link (below each search result) and the terminology in these articles to find related articles.

  • Klink, R. R. (2000). Creating brand names with meaning: The use of sound symbolism. Marketing Letters, 11(1), 5-20.
  • Klink, R. R. (2003). Creating meaningful brands: The relationship between brand name and brand mark. Marketing Letters, 14(3), 143-157.
  • Lowrey, T. M., & Shrum, L. J. (2007). Phonetic symbolism and brand name preference. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(3), 406-414.
  • Lowrey, T. M., Shrum, L. J., & Dubitsky, T. M. (2003). The relation between brand-name linguistic characteristics and brand-name memory. Journal of Advertising, 32(3), 7-17.
  • Wichmann, S., Holman, E. W., & Brown, C. H. (2010). Sound symbolism in basic vocabulary. Entropy, 12(4), 844-858.
  • Yorkston, E., & De Mello, G. E. (2005). Linguistic gender marking and categorization. Journal of Consumer Research, 32(2), 224-234.
  • Yorkston, E., & Menon, G. (2004). A sound idea: Phonetic effects of brand names on consumer judgments. Journal of Consumer Research, 31(1), 43-51.

The literature I have on the "name-valence" or subjective perception of personal names all used German samples, because that is my target audience, and may not be useful to you. Try searching for something like "attractiveness names" and "personality names" on Google Scholar and again use the "Similar Articles" links and the terminology and bibliography in the articles you find, to find more.

  • Excellent answer, what! Thanks! I'm curious: that bit about the sounds of a name conveying a sort of meaning... is there a name for that? Perhaps a name of the study of those sounds? I think a little research in that direction could prove helpful to me. – Thomas Myron Dec 17 '16 at 22:16
  • @ThomasMyron I listed the studies that I read in my answer. I never did a comprehensive search – and couldn't access much that I found –, so this will only be a starting point. What I found most useful was the research on how people judge certain personal names. In my answer to the linked question I give a link to a (German) website that asks people to judge personal names and shows the results of these evaluations. The sample is German speaking, but maybe the cultures and languages are close enough to give you some orientation if you cannot find anything similar for English speakers. – user5645 Dec 18 '16 at 14:28
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Another way to answer this question is to talk about the manner of introducing names within fiction. What is the most effective and memorable way to introduce these names? Here are some questions to ask.

Are you introducing these characters through dialogue or prose descriptions?

Does the narrative structure offer an opportunity to introduce each character one at a time? Or are you beginning at a "crowd" scene?

Are you expecting the audience to encounter written prose (or perhaps hear the story be read aloud? )

Is the intended effect of introducing people to disorient the reader -- or to provide clarity?

What are you using to differentiate characters -- at least initially? Physical appearance? Context upon first meeting? Attitude expressed through dialogue?

I believe that the author should simplify this presentation to make it easier for the reader to tell the difference. But there are several examples which run against my rule: Absalom, Absalom -- which is intentionally disorienting -- and crowd scenes -- which run quickly through lots of characters -- before returning to each character individually later.

For fiction with chapters, it seems easier to limit introduction of character to 2 or 3 per chapter, but that is often impractical.

Also external descriptions (and even descriptions of a character's history) may slow down the narrative too much.

I would tie this question to 2 other questions: 1)how omniscient/intrusive do you want the narration to be, and 2)does the book structure lend itself to a sequence of exposition scenes?

As Jack Matthews wrote in the linked essay above, the sound of the words (and the historical context) imbue meaning to the name. With sci fi and other genre, names can have a secondary purpose of conveying a sense of a different culture or world -- I'm thinking of Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness where the names are strange/long/unlike what Terrans are used to.

  • I'm not sure I'm understanding your answer. You have some great questions for the author to ask himself when introducing names... but how does this relate to actually finding a working name for a character? – Thomas Myron Dec 19 '16 at 16:44
  • Thomas, those are two separate questions of course. I think your literary instincts should decide what the name should mean/evoke. My point was simply that sometimes names can be confusing in a fiction context; therefore, you should give some attention to how you present these names to reduce confusion and improve clarity. – idiotprogrammer Dec 21 '16 at 0:58
  • There are many ways to generate random names, but the task of selecting which one is the best depends on the author's aesthetic and values. For example, I would never use Dickens' heavy-handed choice of names, but they can be helpful/fun for the reader. There are cases where I choose a name specifically for its symbolic/metaphorical resonances; there are other cases where I go out of my way to choose something ordinary-sounding with no metaphorical significance whatsoever. My main rule of thumb is to pick something not too common. – idiotprogrammer Dec 21 '16 at 18:54

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