For those who don’t want to read a long, rantish post, there are links to helpful naming websites at the bottom.
A name can make or break a character and, at times, a story. Names can set the expectation for that character at an unreachable high or unbearable low.
One of the main reasons for these expectations is that everyone has an idea of what type of person belongs to which names. This idea could be about the character’s personality or looks and is usually based on past experiences.
It is possible to break these stereotypes with strong characterization. However, as a writer, you need to be aware that these preconceived notions exist in order to overcome them. By knowing these stereotypes you can use them to highlight the differences in your character. For instance, naming a character Mary may mean that your readers are shocked when she suddenly starts throwing punches and shooting up heroin. But, if you use the stereotypes, you can gradually ease the reader from Mary’s pristine name to her actual character.
Some writers try to get around name stereotypes by creating names or changing the spelling of common names. While this can work, the laws of language still need to be followed.(1)
One of these laws is in the use of symbols. Most symbols, outside of letters, have a name and not necessarily a sound. An example would be the “$” symbol which is not pronounced as “s” or any other letter. I recently read a few paragraphs of a story where one of the characters was named $tarr. I was left wondering if the $ was meant to replace the S in Starr or if the name was suppose to be pronounced Dollartarr. If there is a story behind the absurd spelling then it can be workable but, for the most part, it’s annoying.
Another law is in vowels and consonants. This law dictates that when letters are put together, they shall be pronounceable. If you name a character Zhtbnaeaapkw, I can guarantee that you will need a pronunciation guide to make your story readable. It is possible to fob it off by having the character part of an alien race that speaks a language human vocal cords can’t grasp, but that’s just pretentiousease (2) for “I’m too lazy to figure out how to pronounce this name”.
The last major language law dealing with character names, which is related to the first one, deals with the use of apostrophes. Anyone who has read science fiction in the last twenty years has probably had headaches from this one. Apostrophes do not take the place of much-needed vowels or consonants. In fact, they are generally used to join two words or to show possession. Names like Aa’euo and Ch’d just looks weird.
Edited to include a note from Deby Fredericks who let me know that apostrophes do actually have a slight sound. The pronunciation is somewhere between a gasp and a click.
If you’ve followed the stereotypes and you haven’t used any strange symbols, punctuation or letter combinations, you may still be setting your character up for failure. This is because names have to fit in with your society.
If you were to have a baby right now and name him Crawford (3), he would probably get teased by his classmates. This is because Crawford is an old-fashioned name that isn’t used much anymore. A simple way of getting around this hassle would be to check baby name sites and census details for the year your character was born in.
If you’ve already checked birth years or are sticking with modern times, it may also help to check the area where your story is set. Some countries (such as Iceland) have naming laws which would mean your character could not be named Apple.
By now you’re probably shaking your head at some of the ridiculous rules and laws I’ve created to help with naming. Unfortunately, these laws have all come about from stories I’ve read (or attempted to read) where the character names were a detriment to the story.
Luckily, I know my readers have a good grasp of their characters and how to name them. If you have any tips, pet peeves or links about names, feel free to share them in the comments. I would love to hear them.
(1) I say language laws, but I really mean A.P. Roberts’ Laws of Language. These laws were created to help me write stories which are readable without coming off as a pretentious idiot. They are based on my research and I am welcome to learning what others have found in their searches.
(2) Pretentiousease is my little term for words intended to sound nice but are showing how much of a douche-bag you are. A prime example would be when people complain about not being allowed to break the rules even though they are “important” and “do you know who I am?”.
(3) My dad’s middle name is Crawford and I do think it is lovely and very distinguished. However, it is an old-fashioned name which would stick out in a classroom today.