A co-worker asked me something interesting the other day after he read THE KING’S TOURNAMENT. He wanted to know how I went about choosing the names for my characters. The first thing that came to mind was “Wow, this would make a great blog entry!”
You know, the truth is, I can toss off a good dozen character names without breaking a sweat. That’s the easy part. The trickier part is figuring out which character names won’t really work. If you’re an aspiring author, stick around and let me share some insights with you. There are many great reference books on this subject, written by people far more experienced than I am, but I can at least share a few things I’ve learned. I'll start with some of the fantasy characters from my latest book.
TIP #1: WATCH FOR CONFUSING SIMILARITIES
In THE KING’S TOURNAMENT, I had a centaur named Khora, and a gorgon named Ora. The two gals are right there on the cover, illustrated by my talented wife Christina. These girls weren’t best of friends, to be honest. After going over the first draft, it occurred to me that because their names rhymed, it might seem that there was some connection between the two. There wasn’t. So Ora became Oira. Which really taught me that I need to think long and hard about those names before writing the book. It was a bitch going back through the entire manuscript and adding an extra letter to Oira’s name. Which, in turn, taught me to become more familiar with my Word program, which can substitute one word for another in an entire manuscript with just a press of a button. This probably explained why I ended up hating Oira, and why I was so cruel to her in my book. Let’s move on.
TIP #2: DON’T COME OFF AS A CHEAP IMITATION
If you’re going to write a book about a young boy who dabbles in magic, you obviously need to avoid names like Harry, Ron and Hermione, or anything close to that. If it’s a sci-fi epic, don’t use names like Luke or Leia or Han. This should be obvious to most of you, but you should get what I’m talking about. Basically, if you’re writing a book about a teen-aged wizard, don’t name him after another literary teen-aged wizard written by someone more famous than you. (And no one is going to be fooled by naming him Barry Kotter, either. Put some work into it!)
TIP #3: AVOID THE UNINTENDED ANACHRONISMS
THE KING’S TOURNAMENT is set during the medieval era. The characters have names such as Levinia, Balor and Cyrus. Unless you’re going for comic irony, you don’t name them Bob or Frank or Mercedes. If your book is set in the Civil War, have names that are appropriate to the 19thcentury. And on that note, if you have a Chinese character, try not to give him or her a common Japanese name. Just do your research before you commit to a name. Nothing makes you seem like an amateur than naming your 17th century pirate “Dustin.”
TIP #4: REAL PEOPLE DON’T LIKE HAVING VILLAINS NAMED AFTER THEM
Do you know the reason why most killers don’t have middle initials in crime fiction? It’s because you run the risk of naming him or her after a real person, and you don’t want them suing for defamation of character. God knows it’s hard enough to make money off writing to begin with without worrying about frivolous lawsuits. After one of my books was published, it occurred to me that I didn’t closely check to see if one of the antagonist’s names existed anywhere. I won’t call attention to it by naming the book or the character I’m talking about, but I did some research recently and found this particular name is shared by a realty agent in Tennessee, and a registered sex offender in Colorado. I’m neither looking for a home or into small children, so I’m probably safe. But it’s something you should think about when naming your characters. (Full disclosure? In MAMA SAUVETERRE’S CURIOSITY SHOPPE, I actually did intentionally name one unsympathetic character after the guy who stole my girlfriend freshman year in high school. But that’s okay, I’m fairly sure he’s totally illiterate.)
TIP #5: SAY THE NAME OUT LOUD
Sometimes names look good on paper. Sometimes they don’t sound as good when you speak them out loud. So as you’re writing your story, read it aloud. If it sounds completely awkward, you should consider changing it. A character in THE KING’S TOURNAMENT was named Levinia Viper. You can’t name someone Viper without it sounding completely snake-like and instantly untrustworthy, so it was changed to Vesper in the final draft. Same goes with the Sorceress Tremandhalia, which I had named to reflect a regal, aristocratic feel. In truth, that just makes your brain hurt to read it and your mouth hurt to speak it. Which is why she became Tamora, which is much more easier on the brain.
TIP #6: ALLITERATION MAKES YOUR CHARACTER MEMORABLE
While I try not to overuse it, I do have characters with alliterative names. Hector Horvendue, Arctic Annie, Sadie McSnatch. It’s the same principal as to why we remember names like Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Peter Parker, and so on. I try to save the use of alliteration for characters that I want to call special attention to. Don’t waste it on the main villains’ minion’s girlfriend.
TIP #7: BE CLEVER IF YOU GET THE CHANCE
A character I wrote about in a short story once was a 90-year-old scientist named Jonathan Progeriat. By the end of the story, it was revealed that he was actually in his twenties, but a freak accident caused him to age prematurely. Progeria is a rare disease that causes children to prematurely age. If you can find an obscure or not-so-well known word to describe your character, you might consider using that as their name. Highly literate readers will appreciate your cleverness.
So that’s just a few tips that spring to mind. Hope I could inspire you to come up with some of your own names, such as some of the characters from my books like Tassina D’Emerald, Ceaser Lithglow, Gorman Scudd, Tolliver Chardello and Pennsylvania Tucker. And remember, when all else fails, you can always pull a bunch of Scrabble letters out of a bag. That’s how I came up with the demonic character T’Shier-Iyla. She’s a horrible bitch that plagued the heroes of my comic book series THE ADVENTURERS, but to this day I still couldn’t begin to tell you how to pronounce it. But at least she doesn’t share her name with any child molesters in Colorado.
John Yeo Jr. is the author of Mama Sauveterre's Curiosity Shoppe, and The King's Tournament. Both of his books are available at Amazon. His new book, The Infinite League, will be available in October 2017. You can see more of his books and art at www.yeoniverse.com