A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Nonetheless many authors have an almost mystical attachment to the names they give characters. I once had a discussion with a fellow author who heatedly insisted that “Decker” was better than “Becker.” The artist hero of my novel Burnt Sienna was originally called Kincaid, but my editor got nervous because there was a real-life artist with that name (although spelled differently), so in anguish I changed Kincaid to Malone. For about a week, I felt intense loss. Now I have trouble recalling the original name.
Names can have thematic significance, yes. The aging cavalry scout in my historical western Last Reveille is called Miles Calendar, words that suggest both distance and time. Also miles is Latin for “soldier.” But if we ignore a name’s meaning and think of it as an abstraction, we can avoid a lot of problems.
At the midst of a project, I find it useful to list the names of all my characters to ensure that each begins with a different letter of the alphabet, thus preventing a repetition of Anna, Albert, and Arnold. The list also helps me avoid a lot of names with similar endings: Harry, Bobby, and Audrey. In both cases, the names are sufficiently similar that readers will have trouble distinguishing the characters.
Note that the names Harry, Bobby, and Audrey also have the same syllables, as do Corrigan, Matheson, and Farraday, names that would be rhythmically wearying if all three were main characters in the same story, not to mention that Corrigan and Matheson both end with “n”.
Prepare a chart for names of one, two, and three syllables. Make sure there’s plenty of variety and that the names don’t begin and conclude with the same letters to avoid causing a blur. While all this might sound obvious, if you list the names in your current project, you might be surprised by the unfortunate patterns you discover.
Because of audio books, I also try to avoid names with “s” in them. “Susan said” challenges even the best actor. (Say that sentence out loud.) For me, the goal is to choose names that don’t inadvertently draw attention to themselves and distract the reader from the story.
(This writing tip from David first appeared in Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Character Naming Sourcebook, Writer’s Digest Books, 2005. You’ll find many similar helpful strategies in David’s writing book, The Successful Novelist.)