Choosing Character Names

Names Have Meanings!

Choosing Character Names Study after study finds that what a person is named impacts their path in life. The Economics of Education Review found that those with names beginning with A and B were more likely to be accepted to college compared with those at the end of the alphabet. Conversely, a study by Georgetown found that those with names at the end of the alphabet are more likely to jump on deals and bargains. The theory is that, all through school, those children were stuck being last. When given the choice, they want to be first.

Women with male-sounding names like Leslie are more likely to succeed in business. Job-seekers with common names like Bob and John are more likely to be hired. In the executive suite, men with "strong" names like Tom and Mark are more likely to thrive, while men with "soft" names like Sam and Lee are far less common, even taking into account name frequency in the population. Boys with female names ("A Boy named Sue") were more likely to get into trouble. One could say the boys were probably more likely to have trouble find them. Children with "black-sounding" names are more likely to be disregarded in school by teachers. The expectations are lower for them.

All of these quite strong social factors come into play with book characters. Readers often don't even know we have most of these biases drilled into our brains by the culture we belong to. All the women named Virginia who flock to live in Virginia don't necessarily do it consciously - it's part of a subconscious affinity we have for words that sound like our own names. Researchers even find that people named "Dennis" are more likely to become a dentist.

Tony Soprano on the Sopranos HBO series was originally named "Tommy Soprano." If you're a fan of that series, imagine him as a "Tommy." Do you get a different feel about the type of character he might be, just from that relatively minor name change? Does "Tony" sound stronger? More Italian?

How about Gone with the Wind? Remember the amazing character of Scarlett O'Hara? What would you think when you learn that her name was almost "Pansy?" Pansy O'Hara?

So think about those influences for your characters. A name should never be random. Even in a fantasy setting, the sound of the word has an impact on how readers perceive that person. Harder sounds like K or T give a sharper, stronger feel than softer sounds like S or L. If we hear a child is named Pyroton we think of a fiery, strong, powerful kid who will be a force in life. If we hear the child is Floralys, that's a softer, gentler feel. Our brain picks up on those word fragments and makes connections.

Of course, all of this is based on our current society. In another twenty years, when the crop of adults has a different set of common names they work with, the assumptions we as a society have about those names may be quite different. So the way a book is read in twenty years might differ from the way it's read now.

Finally, make sure your character names are distinct from one another. Avoid creating a group of friends named Jake, Jack, Jill, George, and Jeremy. You're already asking your readers to juggle a wealth of plot, timeline, and character histories. Give them names that are distinct and easy to keep separate, so that their immersion can be as thorough as possible.

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