Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Importance of #CharacterNames by Margo Hoornstra



When it comes to starting a new wip (work in progress), choosing proper names for characters is right up there in importance with profession and core beliefs. Distinctive, and properly chosen names can define characters, help establish their personalities, and bring appropriate word pictures to readers.

Baby name sites are helpful for this essential task, and abound the internet, classified by  meaning or popularity or origin and most everything in between.

I’m certainly no expert, but in my opinion, single syllable first names for alpha hero males (think Rhett) play better and have more impact. Though Percy, as a name is nice enough, I don’t recall any romance containing an alpha male hero with the moniker Percy. To be honest, the word picture I receive from Percy doesn’t have a nicely clefted thin, piercing blue eyes nor the slightest hint of washboard abs.

That being said, I’ve found some characters, no matter how heart stoppingly sexy they are portrayed, can have a negative effect on a reader. This reader, at least. My first and favorite historical romance is the epic Shanna by Kathleen Woodiwiss. Though a fabulous, and well written novel, the hunky hero’s odd first name, Ruark, stopped me as a reader every time.

When properly chosen though, again in my opinion, derivatives of a character’s name can have literary uses as well. (Not that I’d dare compare myself to the great Ms. Woodiwiss, here goes.)



In On The Surface my latest release from The Wild Rose Press, the alpha hero is named Brad short for Bradley. An extremely popular name that, according to one source denotes a no-nonsense quality of masculinity. Of English origin, Bradley officially means broad clearing in the woods. In Welsh, the name means Treason, of all things.

For my purposes, Brad is a tough cop turned badass bounty hunter who has his unrelenting sights set on using a fugitive’s unredeemable girlfriend to get his man. Too bad an admonishment from the foster mother who raised him intrudes on his conscience.

Don’t be too quick to criticize people, Bradley. You never know what trials life may have dealt them.

Has the name of a character in a book ever kept you from enjoying it or, on the flip side, made you enjoy the read even more?

My days to blog here are the 11th and 23rd. For more about me and the stories I write, please visit my website

Oh, and come back on the 23rd for more Character Name musings. Secondary #CharacterNames Are Every Bit As Important

26 comments:

Leah St. James said...

Great post, Margo! You're so right. I spend a lot of times selecting character names. I had never heard about the one-syllable rule...interesting! BTW, I could never get past Ruarke either! I have the same problem with J.D. Robb's Roarke (the In Death series). My mouth doesn't seem to want to go from the "R" to the vowel! (I do love both characters, though.)

Alicia Dean said...

I hadn't really thought about the 1 syllable names, but it seems my heros usually have them. :) Although, not always. I've had an Aidan and Declan. (hmmm, 'an' endings for both...) I have to keep considering and rejecting until I find the right name for my characters. I agree about Ruarke! I remember decades ago I read a book with a heroine named Royalle. And, I SO loved that name. I almost gave that name to my first-born. I'm sure Lana is glad that I didn't. :)

Vonnie Davis said...

I loved your post and agree: names are so important. I, too, check the baby names list after I figure out the year my hero and heroine were born. The social security lists for that year offer the top 100 names. When writing my bear shifters, I go to Scottish name sites. Some names carry more strength than others. I once read a book where the hero was Dale and I just couldn't make the connection between the name and the attributes the author gave him.

Rolynn Anderson said...

Good Names are so important that I spend too much time picking them. And change them. Thank goodness we have ‘search and replace’

Diane Burton said...

A timely post, Margo. I agree about single-syllable first names for men. Women? That's depends on her role. A kick-butt heroine needs a strong name. Those are great sites you linked to. I'll be using them.

Juli D. Revezzo said...

Leah, I believe Roarke/Ruarke is pronounced something like R-ork. (Mork with an R at the beginning. I think.)

Margo, funny you should broach this subject, because I've been looking into the names issue myself, lately. Yes, to baby name sites being a good source, but they aren't always. Particularly if you're looking for accurate historical or regionally bent names (Irish names, anyone?)

However, I must respectfully disagree with your conclusion. I mean, if you want to use one syllable names that's your choice, but you may be overthinking it. Think about it. What if you're writing in the Italian Renaissance? You'll have common names on leaders of the artistic world and the government and military (stereotypical alpha types/jobs) with names like Comsimo, Leonardo, Lorenzo, and Giuliano. Or how many Henrys, Bonnie Prince Charlies, Edwards, Harolds, or Roberts (or Robbie(s), for that matter) have you run across in reading...anything of a historical or Classic bent?

Just in the 19th century classics alone you have William, Brandon, Frederick, Edmund, Adam, Johnathon, Arthur, Victor, Heathcliff, Gilbert, Richard, Septimus, and Walter, for instance. All more than one syllable. Elizabeth became very popular for girls after 1533 and continues to this day. Same thing with Isabella/Isabelle. To add to Rhett you have Ashely. (Why isn't he the main hero? Because the author said so, not because of his name, I'm sure. I rather like Ashely better than Rhett. The name Rhett sounds like the dude might be a jerk--but I digress) Even Biblical names like Mary, Daniel, Joseph, Elizabeth (again) or Veronica are more than one syllable. And Biblical names were the common storehouse of names throughout the (roughly) 11th-early 20th century England and America (Well, a lot of Europe). And most of the names in the storehouse are handed down father to son, grandmother to daughter. So we still use them all today, ad nauseam. (You wouldn’t believe how many Marys and Catherines you’ll find in the birth records of just the 18th and 19th centuries) Did you know, even Margo is an historical name? :) It comes from the 16th century Queen Margaret of Valois. So, there you go. Many multisyllabic names. But that can be quite a hunt, if you're looking for the history of a name. What's popular in say, the 19th century might not've existed in the 3rd Century (and omg, the area considerations! I wrote one book set in 6th century Ireland that was a nightmare finding anything about. Never mind....) and in that case, you might be safe checking with the mythology to pull names (and they're usually a mouthful: Ferghus, for instance).

Sorry (I keep thinking of things to add!). And I didn't mean to write a textbook here. :) I mean, name your characters Bob, Ross, Anne, and Grace, if you want, but I don’t think it’s necessary to make a rule of. As long as the name is pronounceable and not something too weird--like Mxyzptlk (unless you're writing scifi)--I think you're okay.:)

Jannine Gallant said...

I have equal parts one and two syllable hero names. My heroine names go from one to three syllables, so there's no rhyme or reason to those. I look for names I like. When writing contemporary romantic suspense set in the US, I'm not limited by era or geography. I have my trusty (falling apart) paperback baby name book I've used for years. The problem is I'm literally running out of names to use since I've written over twenty books. It's a dilemma. Plus there's the trying to find a name that's a good fit for the character's personality factor to consider. All authors probably spend WAY too much time naming characters!

Margo Hoornstra said...

Oh, oh. Did I leave the ‘e’ off Ruarke? Sorry all. Leah, we seem to be so alike. Same thing with me and that Roarke character. I guess the one syllable rule is simply my personal preference.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Alicia, those ‘an’ endings have a strength of their own. IMPO Anyway. Royalle is a great name. I’m sure your first born would have coped quite well. ;-) Sometime in my wip i’ll Just type ‘name’ until I’m far enough into the book and know the character well enough to figure out what to call them.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Oh I know what you mean, Vonnie. Sometimes a character will have a name I just cannot wrap my head around. With apologies to all the Percys out there. Social Security lists sounds like a good resource. As for the Scottish names. Take a true talen to pick those properly.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Ah, yes, Rolynn. That wonderful invention called search and replace. How did we ever live without it?

Betsy Ashton said...

I got so much flack from naming a character Mad Max, a grandmother who gets involved in, um, predicaments. That was way before Mad Max Fury Road came out. I will say, I got a ton of pass-through marketing when people asked if I really wrote fan fict.

And now I'm getting flack for not having given names in EYES WITHOUT A FACE. At least, questions let me engage with readers.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Use away, Diane! You’re right about the heroine’s name being just as important. Hmmmm. A post for another day perhaps.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Juli, you raise some interesting points. I did not know that about my own name. Thank you for sharing.

Margo Hoornstra said...

I used to have a couple of baby name paperbacks, Jannine. Not sure where they got to. But then twice we had three feet of water in our second level. That could be it. At any rate, you probably don’t spend too much time picking names. I think it can sometimes make or break a reader. My problem is picking names of people I don’t know or am not related to. That’s becoming tougher the more books I write.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Betsy, you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time, as you found out. Pass through marketing is good, right?

Andrea Downing said...

Great discussion here. I tend to agree with those who say the number of syllables doesn't matter. While I do have a Ray, I also have a Jesse and a Daniel and so on. My own take on it is that it should be easily pronounceable to the eye--I say "the eye" because as you read, you don't want to stop to think how it should be pronounced, so Saoirse is out!! Also, I believe it's a matter of associations. To most readers, Percy, Oscar, Melvin etc. are rather old-fashioned, like Ethel & May. Westerns have their own names, too--you're more likely to find Dakota, Cal, Ty and so on in a western romance.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Exactly, Andi. The name must fit the character, the genre, the era - AND be easy to pronounce and remember. Right!

Alison Henderson said...

Like Jannine, I seem to choose a mix of one- and two-syllable names for my heroes. I still use the baby name book I bought decades ago for inspiration. The name Percy, however, will always bring to my mind the hero of The Scarlet Pimpernel!

Margo Hoornstra said...

So true, Alison. Hmmm. You and Jannine on the same page. I’m right there with the two of you. Thinking back, my heroes are varied too. There was Eric, Jake, Barry, Matt. And those are the ones I remember. ;-)

Christine DePetrillo said...

Many of my characters seem to introduce themselves to me so sometimes I don't have to fuss with choosing a name. I do have a mix of one- and two-syllable names. The only character names that turn me off are ones that remind me of difficult students I have had over the years. Hard to cozy up to a name you've said in exasperation over a 180 days...

Margo Hoornstra said...

It is great when the names sort of pop out at us, Chris. I can imagine how hard it would be to change such an ingrained memory.

Juli D. Revezzo said...

You're welcome, Margo.I didn't mean to get all scholarly on you. Strangely, I'm starting a new book manuscript currently, so I'm making and going over lots of lists of names, right now. That's why all the facts are floating around my brain right now. >:) Good luck with On the Surface!

Margo Hoornstra said...

No worries, Juli. I’m always eager to learn. Thank you, first of all for stopping by. And second of all for the good luck wishes. I’m very proud of On The Surface, if I do say so myself. ;-)

RE Mullins said...

It's almost as nerve-wracking for me to name a character as it was
to name one of my children.

Margo Hoornstra said...

So true, Robin. Almost. Then our children need to live with our decisions.