Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Guest Post On Naming Your Characters by Jennifer Moss

Author Jennifer Moss


As an onomast and an author, I’m very sensitive to names in fiction. Yes, your characters are metaphorically your “babies,” however you shouldn’t name them as you would a child. Here are five mistakes that writers make regarding names in fiction:

 1. The name is not age-appropriate.
 Recently I watched a television pilot set in California in the late 1970s. A couple’s teenage daughter, Emma, was missing. I flinched. It would have been extremely rare for a teenager to be named Emma in 1979. In fact, it would still be rare for 2015. Emma has been on the top ten list for baby names for the past five years, which means Emma will be a teenager in about the year 2028. Use the U.S. Social Security site, where you can look up the top 1,000 names in any year going back to 1900. Research the names that were popular the year your character was born. If you don’t use a name from his or her birth year, then you should have a great reason why.

 2. You, the author, are naming your characters.
The characters in your story are not named by you, they are named by their parents. As an author, you should consider your character’s ethnic background, geographic location and parents’ personalities. What immigration generation are they? If it’s only second generation, then it may be acceptable to have a more ethnic name. However if assimilation is important to the parents — or your character — then perhaps not. Your character’s backstory is integral to his or her name.

3. You don’t use terms of endearment. I rarely call my daughter by her name, Miranda, unless she’s really in trouble. I call her “baby” or “booboo,” even though she’ll be soon graduating college. To make your dialog natural, use terms of endearment between parents, children, lovers, and friends. Listen to your own conversations with loved ones. How many times do you actually use their given names? Probably less than you think.

One best-selling author continuously makes the same mistake of continuously using a husband’s name in the wife’s dialog. “Yes, Alex, I know what you want,” and “Did you want to eat out tonight, Alex?” This is a common practice for TV or movie writers, in order to quickly identify the characters to new viewers. However in written fiction, it sounds unnatural and out of place.

4. You use the wrong terms of endearment.
TV writers also tend to use relationship terms like “Sis” or “Brother” to indicate characters are siblings. These terms are extremely dated and not used in current-day conversation. And don’t get me started on Mija. Not every Hispanic mother calls her offspring Mija and Mijo, contractions meaning “my son” or “my daughter.” My mother-in-law is Mexican—born in Mexico—and has four children. I have never once heard her use that term. Whether it’s common practice or not, the terms are clichéd and overused.

5. Your character name is too complicated.
This is one naming practice I recommend for both characters and babies: make the name easy to spell and easy to pronounce. Readers sound out names in their heads, so you don’t want them tripping up on a name like Orxynthadriod. Did that name cause you to stumble out of this article because you couldn’t pronounce it?

This is especially important for writers of science fiction, fantasy, or any genre in which you want to create names that don’t exist in the real world. Great sci-fi/fantasy writers like Tolkien and Martin get it: Bilbo Baggins, Hamfast Gangee, Stannis Baratheon, Jorah Mormont.

George RR Martin even went so far as to create naming practices in his A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE SERIES. For example, his Wildlings typically don’t have surnames. Children born out of wedlock receive the surname “Snow.” Hodor (which is not the character’s name) is nicknamed Hodor because the only word he can say is “Hodor,” and so on. Martin has done so well with character naming that even a character’s title, Khaleesi (meaning Queen), is now being used for (real) babies. Remember, names are just as fundamental to a society as they are to an individual’s identity.

So take time to name your characters — even minor ones — and have fun with the process. Every name has a story, and your story should have interesting and meaningful names.

 * * *

Jennifer Moss is the author of TOWN RED, WAY TO GO, and TAKING THE RAP, a series of mysteries published by Black Opal Books. She is also the founder of,, and the author of the ONE-IN-A-MILLION BABY NAME BOOK (Perigee Press, 2008). Moss has been a name enthusiast all of her life and is a longtime member of the American Name Society. You can find her on-line at

 (Article reprinted with the author's permission. "Are You Making These Five Mistakes With Character Names?" was originally printed by the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and then I read it in Bruce Hale's excellent newsletter.)


ikmar said...

Nice article and I understand your points, but I'm not sure we need to focus on only common names. Continuing your Emma example...

Emma Thompson was 15 in 1974. Emma Samms was 15 in 1975. In comics the name Emma Frost was created in 1980. The name did have some popularity in the late 70's

Then there was the surge around 1990. Emma Watson, Roberts and Stone must have gotten there name from somewhere.

Using your resource, the name was around 340th place -- about 700 15-year-old girls had the name in the States in any one of those late 70's years.

It is equivalent to not calling any girl under five Monica anymore. About the same as not calling a 15-year-old girl Lisa today.

I'm not sure I'd be that limited. Not that I'd use my great aunt's name at all any more: Euphemia :) I do understand the need of not dating your story, but I think there's a little more leeway than what I perceive you are stating.

circuitmouse said...

Naming can be VERY regional among some peoples, and change wildly from year to year in popularity, or vary slowly. I've noticed religion, nationality, class --any number of features-- can factor into it. It gets even more complicated --think of the partition of India and Pakistan, for example; or the birth of other new nations that make an extra effort to throw off the yoke of colonialism (or those groups within a country that cling obsessively to their original heritage burdening their children with names that will make them outcasts among their peers or have other unforeseen consequences). It can go a long way toward giving hints about the personality (or interpersonal relationships) of your characters!

'The Namesake' by Jhumpa Lahiri makes the name of the first born son a major theme in the book that points out the ways this can guide a work's them.