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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Naming Characters
March 5, 2003


Names in your stories are always standout and memorable when they should be, and always seem to fit (Olhado comes readily to mind), especially in the Homecoming Saga with the extensive designing of names that went into it.

I have many terrible stories, and a few decent ones, and one or two that I like to think are rather good; but all of them are simply sodden with Stephens and Sarahs and Johnathans. I watch cursors blink for long periods of time trying to think of a good name, and then end up with a strangely spelled variation of 'Bob'.

-- David DeMattos

OSC Replies:

I had the same problem. First rule: No two characters in the same story can have their key name (i.e., the one most commonly referred to) start with the same letter or the same sound).

Second rule: People from similar cultures should have names that reflect that; from different cultures, the naming should show the difference. Sometimes, just the thought, "Does this character have to come from the longtime American naming tradition?" can open up a story or a character. Having the occasional Abdul, Kassarian, Amijan, Pok Cho, or Nkule can give you people whose history becomes important. Also, when given unusual names, a character will have feelings about those names - and it will tell us something about the parents. A sixty-year-old woman named Melanie Scarlett can say, "I was born right after my mother wept through her third reading of Gone with the Wind." To which the answer could be, "Thank God Aunt Pittipat wasn't her favorite character."

Third rule: All names should be pronounceable by American readers. Thus, you change the spellings or transliterations, and you don't get cute with punctuation marks. Americans don't know what to do with the apostrophe in, say, Qur'an (I think it's a glottal stop, but it's not like I speak Arabic), and Russian can be transliterated in lots of ways. But in their minds, readers don't see letters, they say sounds, and so an unpronounceable name is a constant irritant throughout the story.

Sources: Foreign language dictionaries. Phone books. Biographical dictionaries. Foreign language websites. Make up your own based on existing elements in ways that people really combine names or make them up - Zewonda, Peterette, Albena, Davisha. Make first names out of last names. Make up cool nicknames and then stories about how the characters got them.

Avoid: Names stolen from people in the news right now. It dates the story and makes the writer seem desperate.

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