Peggy Bechko: What’s in a Name?


by Peggy Bechko

A lot goes into naming character, I know, I’ve named a lot. Worse than naming a kid though to tell the truth I’m not so sure a lot of parents put a whole lot of thought into what they name their kids. I mean I remember a friend from high school who was named Stewart Stuart. I mean come on!

But I digress.

The subject here is naming your characters for a book or a screenplay (or, well, maybe for a kid who’s coming along though that one isn’t MY problem).

Along with names comes preconceptions. It’s true, don’t try to deny it. When you name a character ‘Bill’ it’s different than if you name him ‘Percy’ or if you name a character ‘Elizabeth’ it’s different than if you name her “Lizzy”. Names can be a reflection of background, faith, ethnicity or parent’s weird ideas.

That said it’s not surprising to any writer I know that naming the characters in a book, short story, screenplay, or whatever is the most important moment In defining the character’s personality and even the place he or she will hold in a story. Sometimes the name is right from the get-go. Other times you might name a character only to find that character turns on you and begins to act in ways you never intended. Change the name and you change the character. A mumbling, shuffling wimp, can suddenly transform into Indiana Jones. All this in a name.

And where does one find the names that really ring a bell and fit a character? Phone books, movie credits, baby name books, obituaries, organization rosters, weird naming sites online like the Victorian And Steampunk name generator or Victorian Era Names or the Fake Name Generator or The Random Word Generator online. There are lots more of them by the way if you want to kill some times wandering name generators. Just google it. You can even drive your friends crazy by demanding they come up with name ideas for you.

Finding the right name can drive a writer crazy. It rankles and irritates when the right name just does not come. You can think about it day and night, when working on other projects or when driving down the street.

So is there some magical, mystical formula for naming a character, getting just the right moniker attached to the right person?



But there are a few tips that help a bit. First, and I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, unless there is an insanely compelling reason to do so, avoid names that begin with the same letter. No Bill, Ben, Bob, Basil, Bubba or Betty, Becky, Bitsy, Betina.

Here’s why. The human brain is fascinating. Once a reader introduces a character to the brain, that reader pretty much starts skimming, recognizing a character by the first letter or two or the general shape of the word. Your brain fills in a lot while you read that you’re barely or not even aware of. The same letter beginning a name can end up confusing your reader and nobody wants that.

Consider keeping your character names pretty simple as well. It’s easy to get carried away with naming and choose something outlandish, lengthy, poetic, whatever, but which won’t necessarily fit very well with the story. Think realistic for your setting. The occasional extraordinary name works for specific circumstances – but not as a continual stream.

Oh, and don’t forget to keep them realistic for your historic tales. Do some research, find out what names would have fit for the era and the circumstance. Consider your geographic location as well. Names that work well for a setting in the UK might be awful for a story set in China.

And don’t forget gender-neutral names. If you name a character Tracy or Drew or Francis (most folks don’t pay attention to the Francis or Frances spelling to differentiate between character male or female) then be sure to make it immediately clear whether you’re talking about a man or a woman (boy or girl). Don’t allow your reader to dangle for paragraphs or even maybe a page or two before making that clear.

And finally if you’re writing and that name doesn’t feel right, if the character is fighting your choice of identifier, then change it. That’s what global replace is there for. But beware, change of name almost always requires change of story. Because, as discussed above, the name can affect personality, ethnicity, background and more. So tweak it, fix it, bring it into line. You’re going to have a much better story for it.