As a reader, I’m annoyed when more than one character name in a book starts with the same letter. When the book gets really good and I read faster, my eyes use that initial capital letter as shorthand and skip over the rest of the name. If there are two or three R-characters, I get confused. So when I write a book, I jot down the alphabet and make sure I don’t use more than one main character name for each letter. This is a habit I developed on my own, but I’ve since heard that some editors ask writers to change names when several start with the same letter. Affirmation makes me feel 50% less neurotic.
As a reader, I’m also taken aback by strange character names. Some names don’t sound like names, and lately writers love to give heroines boy-names. If I have to think too hard about a name, I’m pulled out of the story.
As a writer, when I begin a new manuscript, I’m embarking on a lonely journey of several months. I do everything possible to keep myself on the edge of my seat. So my characters have names with special meaning to me or the story, even if that meaning will never be apparent to my readers.
In the manuscript I just finished, the heroine is named Zoey because at first I pictured her looking like Zooey Deschanel, but I think Zooey has one too many O’s, and I could not be bothered with repeatedly looking up the key to type an umlaut (Zoë). By the time I finished writing, I’d changed the character until she looked nothing like Zooey Deschanel--but I have to start somewhere, and I still like the name Zoey.
The hero of that story is an Olympic-caliber swimmer who works on his dad’s charter fishing boat and is very unhappy about it. I named him Doug, which means “black water,” according to the baby naming website. I spend a LOT of time on the baby naming website.
One of my favorite characters I’ve written is the heroine of BOY IN BLUE, which is coming out in March 2009. I named her Meg. I have a cousin my age named Meg, and I grew up thinking Meg was the coolest name in the world, MUCH cooler than Jennifer.
Here is how I came up with the name of the hero. I live in Alabama and my critique partner Vicki lives in Utah, but somehow over months of e-mailing and calling each other, we had become best friends without ever meeting in person. We finally met at a writers’ conference in Reno. Between playing blackjack and listening to the (excellent!) Johnny Cash impersonator in the bar, we had the sort of strange conversation you have with someone when you are best friends but are meeting in person for the first time and are trying desperately to make sure you will still like each other afterward. Somehow we got on the subject of the names of our characters and strange names of people we’d known in real life.
Vicki: I went to school with a guy named John Actor. It flowed off the tongue so well that no one ever called him John. Everyone called him Johnactor, one word.
Jenn: That would be a great name for a character. Johnafter.
Vicki: I said Johnactor.
Jenn: What? [The casino was loud.]
Vicki: I SAID I DIDN’T SAY JOHNAFTER, I SAID JOHNACTOR.
Jenn: Oh. *pause* Johnafter is a better name for a character.
I came home and wrote a book about John After, a.k.a. Johnafter, a 19-year-old rookie cop with a Dark Past.
If you’re a writer, how do you come up with character names? Do you give it a lot of thought, or is it just me? We would love to hear the story behind characters' names in your books.
If you’re a reader, what do you love about character names, and what annoys you? I’ll try to keep that in mind for the next manuscript. ;)