for writers and readers….


letter n

1)  If your character is based on a flesh and blood person make sure the name is radically different to their real life one. That includes the good guys. Legal action was taken against Kathryn Stockett, author of “The Help”, by a maid who worked  for Stockett’s brother. She claimed that one of the central characters was based on her life. The character was called Aibileen, the maid is called Ablene. I’m pretty sure the case was dismissed, but who needs the hassle?
Better that Marianne becomes Bertha than  she morphs into a Marilyn.
2)  Names in a story should not start with the same letter. I know they do in real life, but  you want the reader to be able to distinguish between the characters without giving it much thought. Imagine a short story about three girls going on holiday: Tess, Sally and Sarah. I would bet good money that the reader is going to mix up the two S’s at some point and that could very well be the point they put the story down.You can do a lot of things, take a lot of risks but don’t ever confuse the reader unless you want them to be confused.
3)  Names not only reflect the fashion of the time, they also give important clues about culture and social status. So don’t cast Tiffany as a land army girl in World War II and I personally don’t think that Prince Darren works (unless you’re being ironic in which case these rules don’t apply).
 4)  Make the name memorable. Alliteration  can be useful here: Micky Mouse, Peter Parker (Spiderman), Sam Spade (Dashiel Hammett’s detective in The Maltese Falacon),  Radar O’ Reily in MASH.
5)  Make them pronounceable. The reader may skip over them if he or she isn’t sure what they should sound like. Once that happens confusion is likely to creep in, something science fiction writers should consider if they are tempted to write about Vgwxz from the planet  Lzghjjh.


As you are going to refer to a main character several times within a story, perhaps you should make the name work for its living. It could suggest a facet of the character’s personality or the role he or she plays within the story. Charles Dickens did this all the time, of course. There was happy Mr Fezziwig in Christmas Carol, sweet Rosa Bud the love interest in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and vicious Dolge Orlick, the apprentice blacksmith in Great Expectations.

Mr. Fezziwig's Ball

Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball (Photo credit: jholbo)

Some contemporary writers also feel that using ordinary names is a wasted opportunity. Martin Amis has Lionel Abso in his latest novel and Keith Talent, the working class crook who says in’t it all the time, appears in London Fields alongside the much posher and dimmer Guy Clinch.

Can you think of any other books with ‘appropriate’ names for the characters? Do they work for you or get in the way?

11 comments on “N is for NAMING FICTIONAL CHARACTERS

  1. Laura Marcella
    April 16, 2013

    Hello, Bridget! These are excellent tips for naming our characters. Whenever I re-read The Lord of the Rings, it really bothers me how close the villains’ names Sauron and Saruman are. I know by now who is who, but when I first read it I kept getting confused. I also don’t like it when authors use the same name for different characters because it’s a family name. I get it, ancestors are honored and respected, but it can get really confusing for the reader.

    Happy A to Z-ing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

    • bridget whelan
      April 16, 2013

      Had exactly the same problem with S and S in Lord of the Rings when I first read it a couple of centuries ago.
      Repeated first names are hard to handle when you are writing the biography of your family (I teach a course on the subject and have come up with a number of strategies for dealing with the problem) but there’s no excuse in fiction!

  2. Vikki Thompson
    April 16, 2013

    Great tips honey 🙂


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  4. simonedavy
    April 18, 2013

    Alice Munro manages to get away with a Clark and Carla and even a Juliet and Juanita! But I suppose she is allowed. I’ve pushed it to a Cheryl and a Colin but no further! Surnames – even more tricky….

  5. alicia
    April 18, 2013

    Hi Bridget,
    In my writer groups I always give the note about names with the same letter (your #2). There are SO MANY names in the world, why risk confusion by starting two with the same letter. I’m glad you feel the same way! Stopping by from A-Z
    Alicia from

  6. Jessica
    April 22, 2013

    Great post. Thanks for the tips. These were some things I’d never thought about.

  7. Pingback: The Name Game in Fiction | The Pelican Writer

  8. Susan
    June 19, 2014

    This is the same problem I have. I get confused when so many characters names start with the same letter. Authors of fiction that I read love the letter “B” for some reason. Every other person’s name begins with “B.” And “Helen” for an attractive, sexy 20-something? I think not!

    • bridget whelan
      June 19, 2014

      Thanks for you comment and it shows how names can create very different responses. For example, I think Helen is fine for a sexy 20 year old! Why the difference – not sure but I suspect I may be older than you and in reality Helen is better suited to 30-40 generation. I remember a few years ago looking at my register before a course began and seeing that I had a Gladys in class. 70 years old at the youngest I thought. When she walked in Gladys turned out to be a stunningly beautiful young woman…from Spain

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This entry was posted on April 16, 2013 by in A-Z Challenge 2013 and tagged , , , , .


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