Character Name Calling: Funny, Frivolous or Necessary?

This morning Middle Son asked what his Irish name should be for the day.  His class is celebrating St. Patty’s Day early because students will be home in their jammies when the actual day arrives–and what fun is that?

“So, should I be O’Tyson Wacker or Tyson McWacker?”

Tyson McWacker, of course.  But the more we said it, the more ridiculous it sounded.  Say it fast three times and he turns into Tyson McQuacker.

My Dear Hubby’s wedding gift to me–my brand new last name–has a long history of teasing behind it.  Seriously, how could it not?  Kids have inane senses of humor and love to slaughter names for the sheer joy of watching others squirm.

As I did when naming my children, I consider every single character name very carefully before committing to it.

 Cat’s Unconscious Rules to Name Calling

  • They must roll off my tongue.  First and last names absolutely must flow together or they simply cannot be paired up.
  • They must never rhyme.  Josie Posey is just ridiculous.  Likewise, alliteration must be used carefully–or not at all–because it is sooooo overused in children’s lit and begins to make my ears bleed after a while.
  • I love pairing short and long.  Either via syllables or vowel sounds.  If everything matches, I get twitchy, like I’m back in kindergarten clapping out syllables.
  • Names must convey character via their sounds.  If my character is soft and emotional, the name must sound warm and sweet.  Harsh characters have harsher names, while strong characters have strong sounding names.
  • Nicknames happen if my characters need to grow and change.  I use these to convey their development.  Silly, little Suzie grows into responsible Susanne.  Or, staunch and stuffy Elizabeth lightens up and becomes Liza or Beth or Lizzy.
  • I love unique names, but this can be carried too far.  I try to balance the sound of them within an entire novel.  If everyone has a funky name, I won’t remember anyone.  Likewise, if everyone has a John Smith kind of name, I may forget who everyone is.
  • I try really hard not to start more than one character’s name with the same letter.  Some people are visual learners and may resort to shorthand for character names–ie, reading the first letter and moving on.  If we aren’t careful, characters can run together and readers will have a hard time keeping them straight.
  • Funky, unpronounceable spellings?  No way.  If I can’t pronounce a name with any sort of fluency, I will not make my audience try to stutter through it.  What often happens in these cases is that readers shorthand names–pronouncing them however feels comfortable and will be easily remembered–and then we can’t discuss the book with anyone else.  Because nobody will know who we are talking about!
  • I love slipping in subtle humor or imparting meaning through the names I use.  In my pirate chapter book, I have Mama, Papa, Missy, Junior, Yappy and…Petey the Parrot.  It’s obvious they are a family–an every family, family–and that Petey is just a bit different than the rest.  In my YA, Gemini Baker’s name is tied to the entire theme of the novel.
  • I love being able to spit the name of the antagonist into the air.  Bullies’ names usually have hard consonants in them and are short.  Names I want to get rid of, fast.  Or, conversely, names that can be drawn out in a sarcastic kind of way.  Z’s and S’s are faves of mine, as well as vowels that can be carried long and far when my MC wails.
  • Obviously, ethnic characters deserve ethnic names, but they should fit.  I never throw a token Jose Garcia into a manuscript followed by a complete homogenization of his character.  This is just wrong on all kinds of levels.  Names should match personalities, values, traditions and histories.  Janice is a gum-smacking child of hippy parents while Heidi and Helga come from conservative families who value their roots and what that all entails.
  • I avoid at all costs asexual names, though I have been known to deliberately mislead via nicknames.  But that loops back up to the nickname/real name growth thing.  Will Frankie the tomboy embrace the Francesca she should become as boys and girls begin to part ways in middle school?
  • I do love a name that can be made fun of.  Of course, I write for kids, so this probably has something to do with it.  Names really do help shape and mold the kids who have to carry the burden of them.  I feel that overcoming the emotions tied to this very natural tendency of name-teasing can really help develop a character–both protagonists and antagonists.  Which really translates into a deeper understanding and growth opportunity for my readers.

I process all these in about two seconds.  I never pre-plan names, nor do I consciously consider them as laid out above.  Literally, my fingers type a name and I either let it go or hit the delete key.

Readers, what do you like in character names?  How does a name influence your feelings toward a character?

Writers, how do you pick the names you use?  What personal “rules” do you follow when naming your fictional babies?

All, what is your absolute all-time favorite character name?  Your least favorite?  Why?

Curious minds want to know.


8 responses to “Character Name Calling: Funny, Frivolous or Necessary?

  1. Betcha can’t guess what I was called – which lasted (predictably) all the way through my elective politics career (not the first – or last – time a politician was called that).

  2. I don’t think about it too much. I have certain things I look at to find good names and when one sounds right for my character, I go with it. And sometimes I’ll change it later in the story if I find something that fits even better.

    i don’t know if I have an all-time favorite character name, but certain authors are really good at naming, such as J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl, Janet Evanovich. Their character names fit the characters so perfectly I couldn’t imagine any other name that would be suitable!

    • Laura,

      How in the world do you switch a name midway through? I don’t think I could wrap my brain around that. It’d be like renaming my preteen!!!

      You’re right, some authors just seem to nail naming their characters.


  3. Oh, names! Names are fun, and names plague me.

    Sometimes if I hear a name I like, first or last, I “keep” it to use it later. Depending on the story I’m writing, I might look at regional or historic names to help me along. Sometimes names are symbolic, if only to me. Sometimes I explain it, if it makes sense to.

    I do try and nickname selectively. Too many -y’s gets tiresome to read, and might be confusing in the dialog. Gender neutral names or nicknames, I don’t mind, though I do typically use them for a reason, but it social or personality.

    • Oooh, never thought of the “-y” names being too much. Like a glob of super sweet frosting that sticks the tongue to the roof of your mouth. I can totally see that.

      I like historic names, too, and wish we saw a few more of them in novels. But, they must be used for a reason otherwise it gets hokey. I’ve never given a thought to regional names, though that makes sense. Thanks for opening my eyes to yet another name-calling device I can use.


      • Sometimes I’m just bad at coming up with first names, and it plagues me until I find the “right” one. Baby name web sites are great (especially for meanings too), but I’ve also discovered more recently that, in a lot of instances, census records are available online. So, say you’re writing a story about a family that’s been in Appalachia since after the Civil War….you can get popular (or, conversely, quirky) first names, last names that have been in the area, get a general idea of ethnic demographic beyond “Appalachian”, that kind of thing. I don’t know that I thought that way about it before I worked at the library and was made aware of genealogical resources, but it’s a thing I do, and I’m definitely happy to share it!

        (if I was smart, I’d make my own blog post about this…hmm…)

  4. I like to have my characters names mean something in the language of wherever they’re from. Something that tells us about them. I’ve debated my MC’s character for the last piece because his name translates as “Hero/heroic.” I don’t want those who understand Chinese to think I’m beating them over the head. YES. THIS IS THE HERO! But I wanted a name that sounded (to western ears) close to the character’s historical name, which was Bei or Pei, depending on the translation you chose. I may still change his name. Nothing is sacred any more – well, very little. Most of the characters have undergone name changes. Some have changed multiple times. My villain’s name means “Doubly Strong Tiger” and there’s even a Chinese parable I wove into the meaning of his name, so I don’t want to change that. Neat post. Thanks!

    • Multiple times?!?!? I would be so confused! I love that you give so much attention to the meanings behind your character names. While I would never understand the significance and would merely love the lyrical way your names sound, your readers who know far more than I do about the culture will appreciate all your dedication.


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