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Character names matter
Harry Potter,Huckleberry Finn and, er... Hubert Gribble

Remember the dashing hero in Gone with the Wind?

What a rugged manly hero. And what a rugged manly name.

Rhett Butler. 

Imagine if he'd been named something else, like ... Percy Sprong or Hubert Gribble.

Would his character be as convincing?


And what if Scarlett O'Hara hadbeen something else. Enid Snirke say, or Maisie Brittlebanger?


Character names matter. They convey rhythm and flavour and shape. They evoke memories and reinforce the reader's response.


New writers often pick namesthat appeal to them. If Jack and Emma are top choices in the birth notices, you can bet on a crop of characters called Jack and Emma.


Why not choose something that adds to the personality of your character? An antagonist called Slade or Odinhas has much more punch than something neutral like Pete. Calvin sounds more like avictim than Brad and who would you rather meet in a dark alley - Gareth or Goober? Calling an energetic character Dasha has more oomph than something that disappears on the page like Sara.


RoaldDahl was a master at choosing appropriate character names. Augustus Gloop is agluttonous child. Aunt Spiker is mean and vindictive. Professor Foulbody is adubious scientist. Miss Honey is well, ... sweet, and Headmistress Trunchbullrampages through the school creating havoc.


Names are also useful memoryaids especially for longer novels with a cast of characters. Who can forgetthat Professor Sprout teaches Herbology at Hogwart's School or that Moaning Myrtleis a ghost?


It really is worth spending some time thinking about your characters' namesto get the right ‘fit.'



TIP 1: Avoid  similarities


When I was seven, I was given a book that featured twin sisters. The good sensible twin was Molly. The naughty one was Polly. Or maybe it was the other way round? I could never keep track because their names only differed by a single letter.


Names with the same beginningl etter (Penny, Ms Poulson, Dr Paul) are confusing too - especially for marginal characters. Often all that sinks in as you skim a story is the first sound. As for names with several similar characteristics such as Jason and Justin - they create an unnecessary mental chore for the reader.


TIP 2: Beware the complicated name


If you choose names that are difficult to pronounce, you create distance between reader and character. If Phiponoughlier is the only possible name for your mad scientist, introduce the name once and then provide a nickname: "Please call me Phip."


TIP 3: Reflect diversity


Western societies aremulti-cultural. Add authenticity and an inclusive feel to your work by reflecting cultural diversity in your characters' names. Educational publishers in particular, will look kindly upon the inclusion of a broad cultural range.


The website http://www.babyzone.com has lists of babynames by category including nationality.


TIP 4: Create authentic new worlds


Science fiction and fantasywriters can have loads of fun with characters' names. You want your names tosound different from earthly humanoids, but not too different.


Some writers select common namesand then change a single letter to create something new. Thus:


Amelia becomes Amelira


David becomes Dafid


Rhiannon becomes Rhiannor


Mark becomes Maik


Names can reflect thecharacteristics of an entire race. A preponderance of vowels suggests anethereal quality and would suit fairies or elves. Try taking a common name ofthree syllables and swapping some of the consonants for vowels. Thus:


Samantha becomes Eamantia


Jeremy becomes Aeriemy


Marianne becomes Ariannie


Joshua becomes Oeshua


On the other hand, names withextra consonants sound heavier. Metallic robotic creatures may have a number ofhard consonants in their names such as Broddon or Robard.


TIP 5: Add power to your picture book


Picture books names should bechosen with special care since each precious word must convey tone andatmosphere. The name Digby evokes the slow rumbling movements of a heavycreature - just perfect for the wombat in TheLong way Home (Emily Rodda).


On the other hand, Miretteevokes lightness and agility. Just right for the acrobat in Mirette on the High Wire (Emily ArnoldMcCully).


TIP 6: Play with words


Make a list of the personalitytraits of your character. If he or she is the anxioustype, your list might include: fidgety, flustered, twitchy, jittery, jumpy.


Thenplay around with these words to come up with colourful combinations ...

TitchE Finglet perhaps, or Fidge Jigglebottom.


Tip: 7: Use names to create a catchy title


I once changed a character'sname from Jenna to Jess so that I could call my story Don't Mess with Jess. Similarly for Smart Alec.


Catchy titles sell books andcharacter's names can be chosen to give your title that extra edge. Someexamples from my library shelf include:


Amelia Bodelia, Zizzy Zing, Captain Underpants, Relax Max,Crazy Kat, Yurtle the Turtle and EmilyEyefinger.


You can have a lot of fun comingup with good title/name combinations.


So ... next time you are consideringnaming your dashing hero Claude Clodwamble or your sweet school teacher MsSlambunger, you might ask yourself: "What's in a name?'


The answer? Plenty.



© Jill McDougall 2007
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