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Naming characters: The Upside of Creativity, and a Trap

July 10, 2012 15 comments

A writer-centric post today on one of the most enjoyable parts of being a writer – the creativity it allows me. Specifically, in making up names. I’ve talked before about naming settings (cities, planets) and items (vehicles, weapons, ships), but this post is strictly about naming characters…and a trap one can fall into.

A few months back, I did a beta read for a friend, and one of my critiques was alliterative names. It was a fantasy novella, out of my usual comfort zone of reading, so I didn’t know if that was a theme or style fantasy used. However, after the fourth character was introduced whose name started with a V, I was completely lost. I felt it made it difficult for the reader to follow, especially when a story has several characters that impact the overall story arc using that letter.

Let’s do a little quiz. Here is a photo still from one of my all-time favorite movies (and guilty shoot-em-up pleasures), Aliens. It’s a picture of two of the most visible and popular characters (not to mention two that survived quite long, so they had plenty of screen time). It’s Hicks and Hudson; everyone knows those names. What’s the quiz? BEFORE you scroll down to the answer, answer this – which one is Hicks, and which one is Hudson?

Answer: It’s Hudson on the left, Hicks on the right. Even I to this day sometimes mix them up thinking back to the movie, as they are in so many scenes together, they are integral to the plot arc, and their names start with the same letter.

Maybe you got it correct, maybe not, but the point I’m illustrating is that characters need distinct names from each other, and ones that aren’t overly clichéd (and by clichéd, I mean Cliff Stone for the tough guy, Melvin Poindexter for the nerd, Vlad Bloodworth for a vampire, and so on – they can take away from the story).

I fell into this trap with my first novel, Gabriel’s Redemption, and it wasn’t until the second story in the trilogy was released that someone called me on it. I never caught it. And it was pretty bad, I must say. Two very different characters, one the ultimate bad guy in the book, and one a heroic captain. One was MacFarland, one McTiernan. Holy crap, what a boo-boo.

The reason? I’ve used random name generators online for many character names, and I just keep hitting Refresh until one catches my eye. One that sounds right for the character and is easy to say (a popular character named Varsonofy Panteleimonovich Krestovozdvizhensky is going to stop the reader in his or her tracks). I had MacFarland from a previous idea and put it into the story, but when I got to needing a name for a ship captain later on, I resorted to the random name generator, and it looked good. Never made the connection.

So…did you get Hicks and Hudson correct? Any name issues you’ve run across in books, or traps you’ve fallen into?

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