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Home » Books & writing

In Search of a Good Character Name

Submitted by on February 6, 2012 – 6:37 pm 18 Comments

I recently read three crime novels in which the character names were so over the top that they kept distracting me from the story. I couldn’t focus every time the ridiculous monikers came up because I was either rolling my eyes or snickering. And these were the leads! Instead of continuing to read, I started thinking about what makes a good character name and this post was born.

I’m guessing that the overly dramatic names are meant to make the characters unique. I understand they should be something that if you look in the White Pages (if you still use such a thing), you shouldn’t see eight of them, like you might with a Bill Johnson or Ann Martin. I also get that, say, Larry Brown, may not be sexy enough for a protagonist who’s a spy or former SEAL, and Judy Anderson may be more appropriate for a nice neighbor than an assassin. But when authors go to the other extreme and name their characters along the lines of Brock Savage or Hunter Chevalier—I’m talking thrillers here, not Harlequin romances—I cannot take them seriously. I keep expecting someone to rip open his shirt while caught in the rain in a meadow.

My theory is, the names that work best are those with one unusual name combined with a more common one. Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, Dave Robicheaux, Elvis Cole, Sam Spade, Jane Marple, Matthew Scudder. I’ve known people named Jones, Holmes, Dave, Cole, Sam, Jane, and Matthew, so that makes those characters relatable, while the other half of their names sets them apart. Give me two weird names and I’m just going to laugh, wondering if those characters have celebrity parents.

Have character names ever distracted you from an otherwise good story? What are some of your favorite literary names, and why do you like them?

18 Comments »

  • I never think about character names unless they’re outlandish like the ones you mention. Or not outlandish, but just atypical.

    When they do stick out, though, they will drive me crazy.

  • Lauren says:

    I always notice character names. I notice names in real life. I love names. But the influx of ridiculous names in the books I read is distracting. Perhaps because of the way some authors seem to go out of their way to make their character names stand out. It’s to the point where I APPRECIATE a ‘normal’ name. A name doesn’t make a man or a woman, it’s the words and actions. So in some ways, I feel like names are a crutch. I’m not against an interesting name, we all know people with unique or interesting names. It’s when men are constantly named things like Rock or Brick or Stone or some other supposedly strong and unbeatable substance that I start to sigh and roll my eyes. And why I appreciate authors who go with a Tom, Dick or Harry. Throw away the crutches and make a Ned a hero! Hmm, apparently this post struck a nerve… 🙂

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      I read that as “make a Nerd a hero” and thought, “Yes!” But Ned would be fine, too. Batman and Superman’s alter egos have rather unremarkable names. Actually, their superhero monikers are plain, too! But, as you said, it’s their actions and stories that are amazing.

      • Lauren says:

        I thought of that, but wanted to avoid the situation where we do the opposite – think a ‘nerdy’ name is a nerd. But I like nerds as heroes. Bruce Wayne? That’s kind of a studly name, isn’t it? Or is it only studly because we know Bruce Wayne is Superman? Let’s get a grant and do a study.

        • Pop Culture Nerd says:

          Er, Bruce Wayne is Batman. Nerd points deducted!

          As to whether the name is studly, I don’t think it’s THAT macho, but it’s not wimpy, either.

          I’m all for that study. Want to write the grant proposal?

          • Lauren says:

            Oh, hell, that’s what I meant. Clark Kent is a pretty studly sounding name, too, though. But that post kind of solidifies that I’m probably not the one to write our grant if I can’t even get our superhero names right.

            Hmm, Clark, Kent, Bruce, Wayne. Does the double first name name have some extra manliness to it? An item to add to the proposal.

            • Pop Culture Nerd says:

              I don’t think Clark or Bruce is extra manly; they’re simply decent names. I don’t know if doubling up on first names is the secret. Bob Tim? Frank Steve? But James Todd would work, or William Patrick.

              • Lauren says:

                Not necessarily by themselves, but those combos are, at least to me. And I think the hard consonants help, too. Though you’re right, Bob Tim doesn’t really inspire confidence. No offense to all the Bob Tims out there. Steve Franks works, though. I think it’s just Tim that screws up the works.

                Do you think this poor dead horse can take anymore?

  • Erin says:

    I’m right with you…and names I can’t pronounce annoy me especially because I feel like I have to pause every time I see them to try to figure them out! Recent favorite names include Lily Moore (because it fits the character SO perfectly) and Paul Janson (ditto). I also thought Lizzie Hood was a win, because it fit both the character and the timeframe of the story.

  • Pop Culture Nerd says:

    If I can’t pronounce a name, it’d better be because the character is a foreigner. Creative spellings of common names also annoy me, because as you said, I have to stop and figure them out, like how Karleigh is pronounced “Carly.”

    The names you mentioned are all good ones!

  • Overly contrived names do distract me {or give me the giggles}, not that any spring to mind to quote at the moment. Perhaps we could try playing a similar game to that one about discovering your fake porn star name. Choose the last name of your primary school teacher and the name of the city/town where you spent your first holiday. My first lead character in my imaginary book would be Lloyd Herberton. Heh. Better make my first novel something about a librarian or genetic scientist.

  • Steve Weddle says:

    This is not the only reason Nathaniel Hawthorne sucks.

  • Rhonda says:

    Like Lauren, I always notice character names and definitely pay attention to them in real life. I look at every name on every package I deliver – Page Turner, Candy Box, Candy Cain, and who knew Lynda Carter and Vince Vaughn live in TN? I get really annoyed at the over the top names. Personally, I’ll take Harry Bosch any day. Thankfully he doesn’t go by Hieronymus.

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