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Name That Character!

Ellie Trietel

June 18, 2023
Name That Character!

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Anyway – when naming characters in a work of fiction, especially those who are part of the main cast, there are a few things to keep in mind:

Keep Names Distinct

Here are two sets of dialogue:

“Layla, pass me the rope!”
“Here! Leah, be careful!”
“I’m being careful! Wait, Lily, don’t-”

VS.

“Yael, pass me the rope!”
“Here! Shoshana, be careful!”
“I’m being careful! Wait, Chani, don’t-”

Although almost identical to the first, the names in the second example are more diverse, expanding over a range of sound, and ultimately, more interesting – not to mention less confusing.

Here are some good rules of thumb when looking to name your characters:

a) Don’t name multiple characters with names that begin with the same letter.
b) Avoid using names that sound too similar.

Leaf through a baby name book or something similar and try to find names that have varying numbers of syllables, different endings, and are overall easily distinguishable from one another. If you do want to begin two of the main cast’s names with the same letter, make sure the rest of the name is distinct enough that it doesn’t confuse your reader.

Tip: Generally, short first names paired with long last names and vise-versa can create an almost musical sound and are usually catchy, like Yocheved Stern or Sara Gurevitch.

Look For Hidden Meaning

This is when Jewish names become a very useful tool. Hebrew/Yiddish names’ meanings’ can be used to let the reader make subtle (or, for comedic effect, no-so-subtle) inferences about the characters. As an obvious example, the girls’ name Aliza means “joyful”, and Chana means “grace”. Or you could go the ironic route and make the character the opposite of what his/her name would imply.

Tip: Characters’ names are directly proportionate to the level of realism your narrative has. In short, this means a fantasy will have more unique names than your run-of-the-mill contemporary, and magical realism is somewhere in the middle.

Keep the Reader in Mind

Long, complicated names draw attention to a character – they’re also very tedious and difficult to pronounce. Unless it becomes part of the story, be wary of names like this.

If you really want to make your character’s name especially elaborate, there are a few things you can do to avoid creating difficulty for your reader:

Give them a nickname. This also adds interest to the character – especially if you create a nickname with a backstory that has a significance within the narrative. Be sure not to overdo this, though. Giving too many characters nicknames can feel cheap or gimmicky quickly.

Make them only go by part of their name. This doesn’t have to only be in the obvious ways, like being called only by their first name or part of it. We all have that one friend who goes by their middle name, so why not make one or two characters who do the same? On occasion, a character can even be called exclusively by their last name.

Be Sure the Name Fits

Making a character’s name sound good isn’t the only thing you have to do. It also has to make sense – does the name fit the time period? If it does, would your character’s parents have named him/her that?

Does the name you chose fit your character’s specific ethnic group, and specific part of the ethnic group? Chaya Mushka is a very common girl’s name in the Chabad-Lubavitch community nowadays, but practically non-existent in most other Jewish sects, and it only became popular in the Chabad-Lubavitch community in the mid twentieth-century or so.

Character names should be historically, geographically, and religiously accurate as well as match your genre. Be sure to do your research regarding the origins of your characters and name them accordingly.

That’s all for now, folks! Happy writing! 😀

Ellie Trietel has often been found lurking on her couch in New York since the mid-2000s. She’s usually writing in the dark, marking her words, and trying to read between the lines.

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