Names are important. We refer to people (and animals) by name, and if we don’t know their names, we will make up a name/nickname. It’s subconsciously wired in us—we can’t help it! 😉
Since your goal is to captivate readers with your story, be sure to avoid the following naming pitfalls:
1. Names are too similar
As readers are eagerly flying through the scenes, they typically (subconsciously) look at the first letter or grab a brief glimpse of the name to get to the action. If characters’ names are too similar, it can be confusing to figure out who is doing what.
Jan and Jon went to Jay and Jen’s pool party. Job and Josh arrived a half hour late. Jock, Jay’s dog, rushed to greet them, knocking Jen into the pool. Jon playfully pushed Job and Josh in the pool to join her. Josh grabbed Jan as he was falling and pulled her in, too. Jan screamed because she didn’t want to get her hair wet. Job dunked Jan, so Jon came to her rescue. Jock jumped in and landed on Job. Jon tried to climb out, but Jan pulled him back in again.
(Whew! You get the idea.)
It’s really bad if a villain’s name is similar to a hero’s name.
Brickle shoved open the bar door and scanned the crowd. Hand on his holster, he searched for the killer. He saw the murderer throwing back drinks, laughing raucously. Brindle caught sight of him and whipped out his gun. Brickle ducked behind a large man, but Brindle shoved the guy aside. Brindle jammed his gun in Brickle’s gut, but Brickle pistol-whipped Brindle.
(Wait—I lost the visual. And this is just part of one scene.)
Names that are used as actual words can be unnecessarily confusing.
Even though Even was tired, he stayed awake on the flight. Even knew Evan didn’t know Even was on board, but he would eventually.
Use distinctly different names for your characters so readers can quickly visualize each person and get caught up in the action. (This also applies to settings. Don’t set your story’s action in both Palm Springs and Palm Desert, CA.)
2. Names are too grandiose
Unique names aren’t necessary. Readers need to easily grab onto a character by name and get caught up in the story. If you write names that can’t be pronounced or are too strange, your readers won’t connect with the characters.
It’s perfectly fine to use the same names used in other books—your story is different. If you are writing about people in other cultures, use the simplest names possible or give them short nicknames. Unless readers are instantly familiar with your characters’ names, you’ll lose them.
Salimyiaata tugged her hat down in the burning sun and anxiously looked around for Strichinciata. Not seeing her friend, Salimyiaata stepped back under the shade of a store awning behind her. Abruptly, a rough hand clamped over her mouth, and she was yanked into a dark alley. Sereiqaane! He’d found her. Strichinciata was too late. Salimyiaata struggled against Sereiqaane, but he rasped in her ear, “Where is Lunieriettiomaagnia?”
(Can you imagine reading a whole book with these names?)
Bellilola nervously waited with her best friend Miniopal for college cheerleading tryouts. Both girls had been in cheer together since junior high. But what if only one of them was chosen? Bellilola’s stomach knotted. It would definitely end their close friendship. Miniopal was the better of the two, but Bellilola had practiced harder since Miniopal was so overconfident.
(Please—just use Brooke and Mia or two simple names.)
3. Villains have obvious names
You can have a villain named George, Mary, or Lee. Really! Villains don’t have to be named Zekander or Eviliana. Using odd, dramatic names adds comedy when you want intensity. Also, it’s most suspenseful when we don’t suspect who the villain is.
4. Names are from the wrong time period or location
There are time period and country associations with names. Don’t name a 97-year-old woman Harper, Elixir, or Buffy. Don’t name someone in their forties those names, either! These are obvious examples, but I’ve read many characters in their thirties or older with modern names that were not common at their birth. Maybe you’re writing about a great-grandmother named her Mildred because the story is set in North America. But she has a history. Was she born here? Were her parents? If her parents were immigrants from Norway, a more suitable name would be Ingrid or Astrid. Every name needs to fit a person’s country of origin at their birth. Do a quick Internet search for names in a given year, and name your characters appropriately for their generation and nationality.
Savvy Writer Tip:
As a savvy writer, intentionally avoid confusing or distracting names. What happens to your characters is what’s most important. Give your readers clear, distinct names and a great story! 🙂