Start Where The Trouble Starts-Character Names

Start where the trouble starts usually refers to the inciting incident of the story. But for me the trouble started with my characters names. Sometimes when you think your characters have what you consider the perfect names, they aren’t.  I learned that at a meeting with my critique partners. My characters once were named Dorcas MacKenzie and Cagel Bradshaw. My critique partners said their names constituted an emergency name change.pod2jjgps0

One critique partner said my female character sounded like what kids in grammar and high school called dorks-Dorcas, Dork for short. Since Dorcas was going to solve a mystery, I guessed she wouldn’t be respected if that was the general consensus. Recently, I watched“Intervention” and the woman on the program (a shopaholic) called it “dermabrasion of the soul.” That’s sort of what it felt like when I retired Dorcas and Cagel’s names.

Before I changed their names, I decided to do some research and get some advice from other writers. Here are their tips:

  • The name needs to reflect the character. You can’t have a woman, with the name Bambi, in a profession requiring brains. An alpha male is most likely named Jake versus Kevin.
  • Don’t choose the name of a famous person. Miley Cyrus, Elvis Presley, Bill Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Britney Spears are all fine names, but not for characters because their names cause a reader to think of the celebrity. Enter the name in a web search to make sure it doesn’t belong to a famous person.
  • Don’t end the name with an “s” or an apostrophe. You will get sick of stopping every time you write the possessive form of the name. Readers get annoyed if you overuse names with apostrophes.
  • Don’t use names that sound the same or have the same first letter. Do not use the same letter for heroine’s first name as the villain’s name. It confuses readers when they have to look backward in the book to find a character’s name.  This advice was from a judge and acquiring editor.
  • Avoid androgynous names. Lots of authors use pen names that are androgynous and that’s okay, but when a reader has to try to figure out the sex of the character, that is just way too distracting. If your hero’s  name is Laurie and your heroine’s name is Hank, count on reader confusion.
  • How to combine surnames. Combine unusual first names with common last names or common first names with unusual last names. While working on Obstetrics, I must say I saw name combinations that were really odd, i.e. babies named for the place of conception like Frisco Bay, Little Rock, and Paris. Then there were parents who named each of their children for a season, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. for days of the week or very long unpronounceable names. One father insisted his daughter’s  name be all consonants. The meek mother allowed it.
  • Be aware of cultural and regional differences. For instance, in the hill county of Texas, there are  German, British and Vietnamese names. That isn’t necessarily true in east Texas.  In North Carolina, English and Scottish sur names are common. In Miami, you’re more likely to see Spanish names.
  • Take your time. Sometimes, arriving at the perfect name takes time  and work. It is the process of gathering and then eliminating. Finally, it can really pay off when the name is perfect. If you want your character name, don’t let a critique group influence your decision. After all, it’s your character.

The heroine of my current WIP is of Scots descent. I wanted to keep the sur name I had given her, although I considered another. I wasn’t attached to the hero’s name so I looked for a name reflective of his profession.

Choose a sur name for the hero that doesn’t clash with the heroine’s name. For instance, if the heroine’s name is Royce, I wouldn’t want the hero’s sur name to be Boyce .  They are too similar in sound and too dissimilar. However, if his last name is Steele, then Royce Steele has a nice ring if the story is romance and marriage is in the future.

Then I took the long list and narrowed it down to the names I thought looked and sounded the best. Obviously, it’s a matter of opinion and others may not agree to do it this way. A friend of mine looks for character motivation and what they want most in the world. Then she looks for the name that fits the motivation. ( Kimberly Packard/What’s in a name?) 

Next, I narrowed the list down until, at last, I arrived at a name that I felt looked and sounded right.

I did the same thing for last names until I, again, had a short list.  And then, I went through the same process for the hero’s name. At last I had names that felt right.

Their new names, though their identities haven’t changed, are Rae MacKenzie and David Hunter and their names are in protective custody.

Sources for further study are:




Character Naming Sourcebook, Writers Digest Books.

The Guinness Book of Names, Leslie Dunkling.

The Baby Name Book

Movies: Look at the credits for names


6 thoughts on “Start Where The Trouble Starts-Character Names

  1. Pingback: Start Where The Trouble Starts-Character Names « Ruby On Tuesday

  2. Excellent post, Ruby! Very thoughtful suggestions. Names are probably the biggest sticking point with most writers, because they’re so personal and important. Everyone knows Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy and they’ve stood the test of time. Great post, Ruby!


  3. I agree. A bad character name can slow down the pacing of a novel or…..stop it completely. I’ve put down books and not picked them back up because I didn’t like the character’s name.


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