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A Name's Story
By Alex Shapiro


What's in a character's name? A lot. A name should give away clues about the character's personality, age, or origin. 

Many times we look at somebody and think that person looks like a "Joe" or "Jane." That stands true for characters. After all, they are real people in the context of a novel or a story. They populate your writing and have their own lives, looks, families, personalities, and, yes, names.

Choosing a name for your characters can be fun, but also tricky. Before getting into the dos and don'ts of how to choose names that fit your characters, let's look first at several resources for their names.

You can start with baby name books and Internet sites, magazines and newspapers, even phonebooks. Some Internet directories provide first and last names and a short description and history of the names-- for example, name meaning, origin, and how they came up as names. Depending on your characters, it is advisable to have an idea about the name's meaning, especially for your lead characters, heroes and antiheroes. A helpful name book is The Writer's Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon, with Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet, published by Writer's Digest.

All these said, what is really in a name?

First, a name can give clues about your character's background. For example, a successful New York attorney can be a Roger or Arthur. The same names don't fit a Columbian drug dealer. 

A name may say something about the character's parents-- a movie fan in the forties may name her daughter Ava or Rita, an Ancient Greek historian may name his daughter Athena. A name may give away the time when the character was born. Elizabeth is a noble name, but less used nowadays. Kids born in present time may instead be called Justin or Ashley. 

A name has to suit the character's personality. For example, a high school or private school teacher may be called Diana, but not Dee Dee, unless she lives a double life and that gives a twist to your story. Sometimes, characters change their names to better suit their personality. They can use nicknames, middle names, or, if they go after a Hollywood career, for example, an artist name (similar to a writer's pen name). 

It is a good idea to stay away from names of people you know, or of famous characters or people, unless, of course, the story requires mentioning them. Also, do not use names that sound almost the same as a recognizable person. 

It's also a good thought not to fill your story with names that sound alike or that start with the same letter: Don, Dan, Damian. Same stands for using same first letter for first and last name of a character, for example Tom Thompson, Jim James, Kelly Kaufman.

Other things to avoid: names that can be either feminine or masculine, like Terry or Kelly, unless, of course, this is used intentionally to create confusion and, therefore, a twist to your story. Also, be wary of names that can be either first or last names; for example, Tyler, James, Grant.

Try to be creative choosing your names. If you need to use long names, it's a good idea to introduce your character with its full name and then use a nickname or a short name. Long names are hard to remember. If your story takes place in Russia, by all means, use long Russian names to make the story and its characters real. Also, names of native Puerto Ricans should sound different than those of native Germans, for example.

Be wary of names ending in "s." Some books teach about the possessive of nouns ending in "s" formed by adding only an apostrophe at the end of the noun, for example "Thomas' book." Others talk about "Thomas's book" and advise not to use names that end in "s." In order to avoid these sorts of problems, try to stay away from names that end in "s" or, if you have to use them, also use a short name or a nickname; for example, Thomas, but friends call him Tom.

It's a good idea to alternate lengths of names. Try not to make them all long or all short. If one character is Julian, another can be Dan. The same idea can be used for first and last names of the same character. 

A name holds an entire history of your character. Treat it with respect and have fun choosing it.

Alex Shapiro is a freelance writer and photographer with works published online and in print. She presently lives in New Jersey.

Copyright 2003 Alex Shapiro.

 

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