Quick tip for newbie writers: it’s all in a name

My dad’s told me many times that he and my mom chose my name very carefully.  I was originally going to be Karen, but our neighbors had their baby first… and decided she was a Karen.  So I became Carol: a name that’s tough to misspell, and tough to make a nickname out of, both of which were important considerations to my dad.  When my brother came along a few years later, my parents took one look at him and decided that the name they’d chosen didn’t fit him, so they switched his first and middle names.

name badgeNew parents face that same situation every day: what to name this new little person?  Something old-fashioned, or quirky?  Something that will sound professional, suited to someone who becomes a lawyer or a doctor?  Or something that will say, “This person is a LOT of fun to be with”?

It’s no less important to choose the right name for your characters.  If you pick the wrong one, it won’t ruin someone’s life, or make them the target of ridicule — but just as it does in real life, saddling your fictional “child” with a name that’s too fussy, too quirky, too old-fashioned or too complicated will give the wrong impression to your readers.  A story about a married couple named Ralph and Ethel will attract different readers than a story about Tyler and Alexis.  (Think about it: without being told anything else about these four characters, how old would you guess they are?)  It’s fun to play against type with names — and it can give an extra layer to your character — but unless you plan to build that into the story, it’s best not to name your high-powered business exec “Timmie” (even as an homage to your best friend from grade school).

baby me

Speaking of friends: be wary of naming a character after someone you know.  If that character drinks a little too much, is unscrupulous in their business dealings, or cheaters on their partner — that won’t go over well if others in your circle (or your friend’s, or family member’s) look at your story and go, “OMG! Is Dave really having a little sump’n-sump’n with the girl in IT?”  Or, “Did Cathy really have a baby when she was 15?”  Along those same lines — you may loathe that guy down the street, the one who loves to blare music all night long and hasn’t mowed his lawn in ten years, but it might come back to bite you if you name your serial killer after him and include enough shared characteristics that your other neighbors can easily identify him.

Long story short: treat those characters like your babies!  Give them the best start in life that you can.  Get to know them for a while before you send them out into the world, and make sure their names fit them like a glove.  If you’re lucky, they’ll end up being as memorable as Scarlett, Harry, Ebenezer, Huckleberry, and Katniss!

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