Character Naming: A Very Important Process
by D.P. Lyle
How important are character names? Do they make or break a story? Can a name suggest a character’s personality? To answer these questions, let me share something I learned from a master of crime fiction—-Elmore Leonard. It was many years ago at the now-defunct Maui Writers Conference that I met Elmore. He was one of the featured speakers. As fate would have it, I had the opportunity to sit and chat with him about writing for about 45 minutes on two separate occasions. I used that time to not only get to know this gracious and funny man but also to pick his brain.
He is known as the master of dialogue, and for good reason. Every writer should read his work as each is a textbook for dialogue writing. But, I was more interested in his characters. They are always deep and complex and so well drawn. So I asked him if he did character sketches or exactly how did he create such wonderfully flawed people. His response was that, no, he didn’t do character outlines or anything like that but rather he would spend weeks, sometimes months, thinking about a character. At some point, the character’s name would evolve. And once he had the name, he knew the character.
The beauty of this struck me instantly. What he was saying is that he lived with these characters for those weeks and months until he knew them. And once that familiarity was established, the name appeared. Basically, he mentally created character sketches. The results were classic crime fiction. I mean, could Chili Palmer be a neurosurgeon? No, only a loan shark. Linda Moon is, of course, a lounge singer, and Raylan Givens is the perfect name for a US Marshall from the coal mines of Kentucky.
So what’s the take-home message? Live with your characters, get to know them, and the name that fits will come. I’m sure, like me, you’ve named characters and began writing a story only to realize halfway through that the name you chose just simply didn’t work. The reason? You didn’t know the character well enough yet to know what that character’s name must be. But, if you live with the character for a time, a better name will appear, one that fits the character like old jeans.
I’ve always believed that your protagonist should have a short, clean name. One that pops. One that’s easy to say, and type.
You’ll likely type it more than any other name in the story, so don’t make it long and complex. Mort works better than Mortimer. Unless, of course, the character is a Mortimer. A longer, tongue-twisting name might even annoy your readers. So, keep it simple, if possible
Also, it’s wise to have only one name per character. For example, let’s say Admiral Adam Jones, Commander of the Pacific Fleet appears in your story. If you call him Adam, Jones, Admiral Jones, the Admiral, the Fleet Commander, etc., you risk confusing the reader particularly early in the work while they are trying to sort everyone out. So call your protagonist Jones and maybe Admiral Jones and stop at that. Obviously, in dialog this might change as one or more characters might know him as Adam, but in the narrative keep it simple. Choose one name and stick to it.
Same goes for your main characters. Are you going to use their first or last name to identify them? Will you choose Adam or Jones, in the above example? This choice might be determined by the type and tone of the story, by local and cultural norms of the setting, and by the time period of the story. For example, in the South, we tend to call folks by their last name. In the end, it’s up to you, but whichever you decide, be consistent.
In medicine, blood type O-negative is termed the “universal donor” because it’s least likely to cause a reaction and, if in an emergency situation where blood must be given quickly and without going through the matching process, it’s the safest choice.
Is there a “universal” character name? You bet. Elizabeth. Think of all its iterations: Bette, Beth, Betty, Betsy, Liz, Lizbeth, Lizzie, Lisa, Liza, Libby, Lea, Lettie, Bee, Bess, Bessie,
Eliza, Elise, Elsa, Ellie, Etta, Ilsa, Izzy, and others. Each of these evokes a different feel for the character.
Choose your character names carefully. You’ll be living with them for many months, even years.
D.P. Lyle is the Macavity and Benjamin Franklin Silver Award-winning and Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Scribe, Silver Falchion, and USA Best Book Award-nominated author of 16 books, both fiction and non-fiction. Along with Jan Burke, he is the co-host of Crime and Science Radio. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of the TV shows Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars. You can visit D.P. Lyle at his website www.dplylemd.com You can read his blog at writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com.
(To become a Killer Nashville Guest Columnist, send a query to email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you.)