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Choosing Character Names For Novels, by Paul Volponi

Hurricane Song by Paul Volponi

In my house, one of our great joys is the naming of a new pet. We have dogs, cats, and even a bearded dragon. My choices of names usually lose out to those of my wife and daughter (personally, I thought Barkley was a great name for a dog), but there is one place where I get to actually see my name choices come to fruition – in my Young Adult novels.

My inspirations for names come from a variety of places. Some come from students whom I have taught, some come from names I have seen across the back shoulders of sports jerseys, some come to me while listening to other people’s conversations in the street (it’s not that hard with everyone on cell phones these days), and some even arise from classic literature (I named a poker player Huck because the final card in Texas Hold’em is called ‘the River’). I keep a running list of names that I like and may one day want to use in a novel.

I also use a dictionary of names – and no, it’s not cheating. I enjoy hearing the meaning of names in dictionaries, sometimes matching them to a character’s qualities (in Hurricane Song, the preacher is named Culver, which means “dove”). Did you know that Shakespeare coined the name Jessica for a female? Previously, it had only been seen in the masculine form.

Are there any rules for naming characters? Well, obviously not. I do tend to stay away from very common names, such as Jim, John, Jane, and Mary. I also don’t want characters in the same book to have names that are too similar, such as Mr Johnson and Mrs Jones. Sometimes my characters, even really important ones, are simply referred to by their roles, instead of their names. For instance, in Black and White, a prominent character is referred to as Marcus’ mother, rather than by her actual name.

You should feel satisfied with the character names you choose. Don’t settle. I suppose some writers, without a concrete name in mind, can begin to write scenes, perhaps using a dummy name or ***** in its place. To me, that’s counter-productive. The names of your characters can stand for your ideas and represent them in a memorable way to the reading public. I want the main character’s name to have an intimate connection with the character’s development. For example, in Rooftop, the main protagonist is named Clay, because he will be moulded into a man in the pages to come. In Hurricane Song, the protagonist with a long journey ahead of him is named Miles. I can’t say for sure that readers in general pick up on those things. I’ve had a few teens bring those images/names up to me, wanting to discuss their origins. I do feel that they make an impact on a deeper, subconscious level.


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Black and WhiteRikers HighRooftopHurricane Song     Deadly Little Voices (a Touch Novel) (Touch Novels)Shock PointTarzan: The Jungle Warrior: Bk. 2

Writing Teen Novels

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  1. One of the worst pieces of naming advice I ever read was in a book that was published in the early 1990s and had a lot of dated advice even by that era’s standards. The author, late editor Olga Litowinsky, said to give your characters names used by your friends for their kids. First, that presumes a contemporary North American setting, and second, it’s a surefire way to quickly date a book. A lot of writers, myself included, are name nerds, and so prefer a less-common name like Octavia, Ammiel, Lysandra, or Raphael. I’d think most readers would be more likely to remember a character with a name that’s not Top 100! I like to use less-common names as well when writing a book set outside of North America or featuring non-English-speaking characters.

    Fewer things put me off to a book faster than predated naming trends. I’ve lost count of how many book, tv, and movie characters I’ve encountered with names that clearly were only used because they’re trendy now, not because they existed when these characters would’ve been born. I just can’t believe a historical character with a name like Jaden or Ashlynn, and I can’t believe a non-child contemporary character with a name like Kayden or McMadysyn.

    May 16, 2013

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