How do you choose names for the characters in your stories?
When I wrote my first children’s stories I picked names for characters from the lists I’d compiled during my pregnancies. I have two sons and while I was awaiting their births my husbands and I came up with lists of possible boys’ and girls’ names. Since I never got to use any of the girls’ names and only two of the boys’ names for my own children, I assigned the remaining possibilities on my name lists to characters in my stories. Eventually however I ran out of names.
I had a thirty-five year career as a teacher and in the process got to know literally thousands of students. I sometimes used my former students’ names for characters. For example if I had an obstinate character I’d name them after a former student who had that trait. It helped me to add authentic details to flesh out my characters’ personalities if I named them after a student with a similar personality. However after a time I began to worry that perhaps someday a former student would read one of my stories and recognize themselves.
In the past I have scoured the obituary pages of the newspaper for names. Do you know how many names are mentioned in just one obituary? By the time all the children, grandchildren, in-laws, siblings and nieces and nephews of the deceased have been listed there can be dozens. Never mind the names of friends, care-givers, pastors and colleagues that are often included in obituaries as well. Obituaries are a rich source of interesting names for characters. After a time however I began to wonder if looking for character names in obituaries wasn’t a fairly morbid practice and one I’d be loath to admit to if I ever became famous and an interviewer asked me how I’d picked the names for my characters.
My most successful method is one I’ve developed recently. I first determine an age for my reading audience and then I look up the most popular names for boys and girls born in the same year. If my story is aimed at nine and ten years old for example, I search for popular names for babies in 2003 and 2004. I look at the list and choose names for my characters from the top ten names or so. That way I’m fairly sure my readers will feel comfortable and connected with the names I’ve picked.
Blogger Katie Axelson gives three excellent tips for picking names for characters in a recent post. She tells us to avoid giving two characters in the same story names that sound too much alike, to use names that are easy to pronounce and check to be sure the names will be familiar to your audience.
My final piece of advice in name selection would be flexibility and patience. I often end up trying many names for my characters before settling on my final choice. Picking a name for a character can be every bit as hard as picking a name for a baby!
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MaryLou Driedger is just beginning to write fiction and non-fiction for children after working as a teacher, newspaper columnist and free-lance journalist for thirty years. She also blogs at What Next?