Naming Private Ryan

For those of you who write novels or short stories, a great number of resources and how-to guides exist that can help in plotting, characterization, and the other elements of the craft of fiction.

The help is very limited, though, when it comes to choosing the most effective names for your characters. Granted, the choice of characters’ names won’t make a good story bad or a bad one good. What they can do, however, is add significantly to the “feel” of your characters.

Names Affect Reader Buy-In

A name that just seems to fit the protagonist can make a difference in how well your readers buy in to the whole story.

And reader buy-in is what you’re after, isn’t it? Getting your readers to feel like the story is reality even when they know it’s fiction is the fundamental challenge we all face, whether we’re producing another War and Peace or an 800-word short-short for a weekly tabloid. We want our readers to lose themselves in the story and forget for awhile that it’s all made up.

A good name for a character is a small but important part of that. On the flip side, few things can break the spell quicker than an ill-chosen name.

Let’s take an example from the title of this blog. Why was Ryan a good choice for the character? Would Saving Private Jones have worked as well? How aboutSaving Private Martinelli? Ryan has no inherent superiority over the other two names. Jones is such a common name that it would reduce the distinctiveness of the title. Martinelli, although distinctive, has too many syllables for optimum flow. Using Ryan gives the title a cadence that Martinelli, or for that matter Jones, would not.

Different, Pronounceable, Symbolic

There are a number of other techniques useful in getting good names for your characters. In order to avoid reader confusion, it’s usually best to avoid giving two characters similar names or even names beginning with the same letter.

Likewise, make sure character names leave no great ambiguity about their pronunciation. We’re ill at ease when we don’t know how to pronounce a person’s name. Readers are, too.

Some good tools for choosing character names are telephone books (for last names) and baby books (for first names).

You may or may not want to christen your characters with names that either are symbolic or seem to “fit” the character’s personality or occupation.

David Morrell, in his excellent novel on the Punitive Expedition in 1916, Last Reveille, named the older protagonist Miles Calendar to symbolize the man’s age and experience, and named his younger protégé Prentice, alluding to his position as a kind of apprentice to the seasoned Calendar.

If you decide to do something similar with a character of yours, just don’t make it obvious. A policeman named Dick Copper might lead to reader rebellion.

The Extra Edge of a Name

All these ideas, of course, are just my suggestions. Fiction has few hard and fast rules. Finding effective names for your characters, though, can be one of the little things that give your story the edge over its competition.

 

–Dr. Loyd, Staff Editor, Edit911 Editing Service

 

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