A rose by any other name…

We all know Shakespeare’s take. That rose will smell just as sweet. But does the same hold true for your characters? This topic popped up in my critique group this week and providentially, it also popped up in my inbox from Writer’s Digest. Brian Klems highlighted the 7 Rules for Picking Names for Fictional Characters by Elizabeth Sims.

The article is well worth a read, and the rules are spot on. The rule that really stuck with me was number one:

1. Check root meanings.

It’s better to call a character Caleb, which means “faithful” or “faithful dog,” than to overkill it by naming him Loyal or Goodman—unless you want that for comic/ironic purposes. Some readers will know the name’s root meaning, but those who don’t might sense it.”

Granted, I’m big on names – even though my child’s name was suggested by a family friend, long story don’t ask – and browsing online baby name guides is my favorite way of killing time when I’m starting a story. My personal favorite? Think Baby Names. It’s a great searchable database of names from all over the globe, and you can follow a path from a particular name through its variants.

I’d also add that checking gender is important. If it’s important to your story that a girl has a name that’s traditionally male (or vice versa), run with it! But if not, be sure your character’s name matches their gender – it can be unintentionally distracting to the reader. This is especially true for names from a culture not our own.  (I might be a little touchy about this. I spent the first day after the company I’d worked for had been bought out by a British firm telling my new colleagues that no, I was not a man. Apparently Leslie is masculine in Britain, while Lesley is feminine. HR had a hard time understanding I lived in the US, and as such, my name was all-girl, as am I.)

Another tip that resounded – no pun intended – was to read your choice aloud. Make sure that it’s clear and unambiguous. Got to think about those audiobooks, I suppose. So, whether your protagonist is a Rose or a Lily, a Jack or a Jake, take a little time to make the right choice for your story.

P.S. Another noteworthy item that popped up in our group meeting  was the  “Children’s Bookshelf” from Publishers Weekly . It’s a semi-weekly FREE email newsletter from PW, and it’s a gem. Click on the link to subscribe, and just uncheck all the other choices except “Children’s Bookshelf.”  (Unless, of course, you’d like even more news from PW.)  Did I mention it’s free?


4 thoughts on “A rose by any other name…

  1. I’ll add even if you are writing a crazy dystopian futuristic story, reader’s need to be able to pronounce the name or you need to give them a clue so they don’t feel stupid not knowing how to say the name. Dumbledore? Unusual but you can sound it out. Your character is Ghravbil? Then give us “it made her cringe when he mispronounced her name like gravebill.”

  2. Leslie, I, too, love the name game 🙂 I have a few books here, plus a bunch of links, but didn’t have “Think Baby Names,” so thanks for that one AND the one from PW 😀 Yay!

    And, Lauri, I am totally with you on the whole pronunciation thing! If a name’s pronunciation is questionable, I can find it distracting through an entire book!

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