The Name Game

Character names are more important than many authors, especially beginning ones, realize. I read a book a few years back, in which most of the main characters were given two first names, as in Bob Charles, John Thomas, Nancy Henry, etc. Not only are the names generic (showing almost no thought on the part of the author), but it makes it difficult to keep track.

Think of your favorite character names and how memorable they are after all these years: Atticus Finch, Valentine Michael Smith, Scarlett O’Hara, Major Major, Bob Cratchit, Chili Palmer, Sissy Hankshaw. I’m sure you could add hundreds. (Please do in the Comments section.)

In real life I’m a marketing guy, and I can tell you that names, whether of characters, businesses, movies, bands or whatever, play a vital role in starting the positioning process in the minds of your consumers (readers, customers, listeners, etc.). Getting back to the craft of writing, the best names communicate information about your characters. If I can use my own book, Dice Angel, as an example—and why not, this is my blog—the two main characters are Jimmy Delaney and Amaris Dupree. Jimmy is a brash Irishman who knows the ins and outs of Las Vegas. Amaris is a kooky ex-hippie who claims to possess psychic gambling powers. I agonized over their monikers a long time before pulling the literary trigger. Even though the novel debuted 15 years ago, some readers remember those names to this day.

A few other tips that may prove helpful: Short first name, long last name. Or vice-versa. Exotic first name, commonplace last name. Nickname only. (“Boy Howdy” in Ross Thomas’ espionage thrillers comes to mind.) As a bonus, it helps if the name has a nice alliterative flow. When in doubt, say it out loud.