The Impact Of A Character’s Name

Every aspect of the story a writer creates, especially something as simple as the names of their characters, has an impact on the story they choose to tell.  A name can be a very important vehicle when mapping out a character’s personality. A name can help a writer show what kind of person their hero/heroine is, or hint at the character’s history or background.

In a contemporary romance if a heroine’s legal name is Margaret Mary O’Brien, the image of  a woman in a long flowing skirt on a hillside covered with flowers pops to mind. But when the fact that she calls herself Maggie is disclosed, a much less formal picture of her is imagined. If the writer goes a little further and puts her in a pair of worn jeans/cowboy boots and sit her on top of a horse, they’ve painted the picture of a women who can more than take care of herself. A strong heroine—-my favorite kind : )

There are other reasons besides personality that should be considered when choosing a character’s name. For one thing, a writer must make it easy for their reader to keep the character’s straight as they’re reading. For example, if a hero’s name is Chase, a writer should not name the heroine, Grace.

An unfamiliar name can make a character stand out, but be careful—it can also make the reader have to stop and say, is this the hero or heroine? If a writer chooses to spell the heroine’s name Jeramie, which spelled Jeremy is male, chances are the reader will be confused. Another way to confuse a reader is by using unisex names. Both Pat and Chris can be male or female. Simple mistakes like these could drive a reader crazy, or worse, make them stop reading your book altogether.

Here’s a rule of thumb– If a writer wants to give one of their character’s a “different” name, they should make sure their other character, hero/heroine, has a gender specific name, one that’s easy for the reader to remember. So, if a writer names their heroine, Brooklyn, then their hero should be a Bob or a Jack. P.S. Short names like Bob, Jack, Bill are good hero names because they’re short, and strong.

Keep the names chosen for your characters specific to the period the story takes place. In a historical novel, the name Brooklyn for a heroine is out of place, just as in a contemporary romance the name Winifred would be out of place. I think you know what I mean : )

One last note: when referring to a character in narrative, make sure to pick one name or nickname and use it throughout. If a writer refers to their hero as Luke, Dr. Lucas Martin, and sometimes as the professor, their reader will really be stumped.

I did this a lot when I started writing, especially in my first drafts.  I was so eager to get the story that was alive in my head down and on paper, I don’t pay attention to my character’s names. Then I’d have to go back and while reading make the changes. As time has passed, I no longer do this, but it’s an easy mistake to make.

One last thing, when writing dialogue this rule changes slightly. A store owner can call a hero, Mr. Martin, and his students may refer to him as the professor, while the  heroine calls him Luke.

Is choosing your character’s names something you spend a lot of time on? And if so, what affects your choices the most?


Cathy Tully

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