A Character by Any Other Name

What do you think of characters’ names in books? Do you like the unusual or the exotic, or would you prefer the more common names?

I’ve been catching up on a bunch of reviews, and it seemed that in every one of them, one or both main characters had unusual names. In some, I had to keep looking back to see which one was the hero and which was the heroine, and in a couple, I didn’t have a clue how to pronounce the names. And they weren’t paranormals; at least in other worlds, I expect something exotic.

I’ve used a few less-than-common names before — Shay, Rory, Mariah, Easy. My current heroine is named Masiela. In my very first book, my editor asked me to change the heroine’s name from Tristan — too unisexual to go with a hero named Rafael. My original Shay was paired with a hero named Rory, and my editor asked me again to change it, since both names were (at the time) fairly unusual. She became Shanna, but a few years later, I tried Shay again (with Easy) without so much as an editorial blink.

But I tend toward the garden variety names — Liz, Joe, Beth, Tommy, Tony, Ellie. I like biblical names, too — Rachel, Elizabeth, Gabriel, Leah. I don’t want anything too trendy, and I get the giggles when I read a book with a character whose name makes me think, “Someday she’s gonna be Grandma Whatever.”  (When she was little, my niece had an imaginary Grandma Tiffany. No offense to any Tiffanys out there, but that always made me laugh. Of course, my grandmothers’ names were Golda and Florence.)

Do characters’ names ever bother you? Do you get hung up on the pronunciation or spelling? How about silly things like a heroine named Blue with a hero whose last name is White? Do similar names confuse you? (I knew a woman named Jimmie Leigh who was married to a man named Jimmy Lee, but something like that in a book would drive me up the wall.) What about young people with names that haven’t been popular in 150 years?

Do characters’ names matter to you at all? Or are we authors (and editors) the only ones who care?


16 thoughts on “A Character by Any Other Name

  1. Coming up with names is one of the hardest things, unless the characters already tell me what their names are.

    Yes, it bothers me to have too funky names. And if I don’t know how to pronounce them, then it drives me nuts. Goofy names can pull me from a story. Guess they didn’t have my attention all that much, huh?

    What I thought was amusing is my first confession had common names. When I got my copy, they had the main character’s name to the popular name of that year. NOT my choice.

    I have a bias on names. When I taught school I had kids who had horrendous made-up or so old timey that they were picked on. My turn to have kids: easy breezy 3 letter names!

    • Meg,

      I remember being one of 5 Sandys in my first grade class. The teacher called us Miss followed by our last name so no one got called Sandy that year in school.

      It was so strange. I wanted distinct, but not strange, names for my kids. I did pretty good. There was only one other Zack while my son was in school (although there are bazillions now) and when Jake hit school there were myriad J names, but no other Jacobs. He did get called Jason, Josh, Jeremy… but he’s just so glad I didn’t name him Ezekiel. I wanted a Zeke and a Zack, but I lost that one with DH.

      • I’ve rarely known any Marilyns, but my best friend from 4th grade through high school was named Marilyn. When we were in classes together, the teachers insisted on calling her by both first and middle names since I refused to answer to my middle name.

        When we named the kiddo, we’d never met another Brandon, but by the time he was three or four, there were little Brandons crawling and toddling everywhere.

    • I’m not particularly choosy about names. I don’t get attached even to my own characters’ names. When my editor asks me to change one, I just shrug and do it.

      One of the Silhouette authors I grew up on always gave her characters really old names — Cletus, Lem, Clementine, Tallulah, etc. If she’d done it once in a while, I wouldn’t have minded, because sometimes characters do come with their names attached and you can’t really change them. But she did it in every book. I dunno, maybe she thought of it as her trademark.

  2. I really notice characters’ names. Especially when there are secondary characters whose names are too similar to the main hero and heroine’s. I just read a western short story. The main male character was John, which is fine, and reads normal for a historical western. Then there was a secondary Indian, named John (insert something suitably Indian here) and they called him John through out. I never knew if I was thinking about the side kick John, or the hero John.

    I also get bugged where there are too many names that begin with the same letter. If she’s Sara and he’s Steve and their best friends Sally and Stan make a showing, I think the author just got lazy.

    I think that names have to be readable. If not pronounceable. I read a big fat, fantasy series with all kinds of elves and trolls named incomprehensible, eleven letter names. I was chatting with another reader who asked me, “how did you pronounce that name in your head while you were reading?” I told her that I took one look at it and called him B throughout the book in my head, I just bypassed even reading the name and internally thought “B”. She laughed at me, but I’m serious, if the name is too hard, I give them a nickname and read along.

    Cool site if you’re trying to figure out popular names is the census site. Let me give you the link: http://www.babynamewizard.com/voyager. You can select male or female or both, then start typing and letter by letter, you can see the number of folks in the states with that name over the years. When it peaked popularity historically and the difference between the number of Zoe and Zoeys. Pretty cool. spw

    • Thanks for the link, Sandee. Neat stuff.

      When I read ACHERON, one of my problems was with all the A names. (It didn’t help that it was the first book I’d read in the series and was totally lost about what was what.) I swear, there were at least ten characters whose name began with A, and I couldn’t begin to keep them straight.

      I can’t just give a character a nickname and go from there. Every time I see the weird name, I have to try to figure it out. On occasion, if I’m using one, I’ll try to naturally work the pronunciation in. Like in the current book, my Cuban/Mexican heroine’s last name is Leal (LAY-ahl). I hate to think of people who don’t know Spanish pronunciation saying, “leel.” LOL.

      • I’m thinking that book I mentioned wasn’t ACHERON, though he was in it. It might have been the one that became before. Still, waaaay too many A names to keep straight without a chart.

  3. I do love Easy’s name. (Short for Ezekiel.) I’m still pretty darn fond of him, too.

    Didn’t one of the heavy hitters — McNaught or someone? — write a book with a heroine named Whitney and a hero whose last name was Whitney? That sort of thing just makes me groan. Like when I judge contests, and the hero and heroine have rhyming names. (Has happened at least twice that I recall.) Or the brother and sister I went to school with — Jack and Jill. (BTW, Jack’s last name was Frost.) Or this kid — I can’t remember whether my niece knows him or I heard of him elsewhere — named Ben Dover.

    And, of course, there’s the doctor I used to deal with years ago when I worked at the local hospital: Safety First. Sigh.

  4. And here I was wondering if she was conceived in a luxury car. LOL.

    I said I don’t get attached to names, but I do have to change them sometimes. I’ll choose a name, use it for a chapter or two, then realize it’s not quite right, so I try something else.

    There are a few names, though, that I absolutely cannot get past because of people I know who have those names. Give me a book with a heroine named Laura, and I’ll have to change it to something else in my head every time I come to it because the last Laura I knew was such a horrid person. The only way I can see the name now is as an eeeviiiil psychotic villain. LOL.

  5. So Marilyn,

    Have you ever fallen in love with a character just based on his name? Years ago I read Mary Canon’s The Defiant and fell in love with Rory O’Donnell. Don’t why but the name just hit me. I tried so hard to talk my DH into letting me name one of my sons Rory. Not a chance. One of these days I’m going to name a character Rory.


  6. I can’t think of any instance where that’s happened, Lynn. I do fall in love with characters (and people) despite their names, but not because of them. 🙂

    I do love the name Rory — used it for a character years ago –Rory Hawkes. Yummers.

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