December 12, 2018

Looking for the Perfect Character Names

By Erin Woodsmall

What makes a name a good one? Luckily for us the answer to this question varies or else life would get confusing as we called one another by the same small set of names! Tastes in names change each decade, something we can see on the Social Security website

New parents pour over lists of names before settling on one for their child. So what makes a good name for your literary “children”—also known as your characters?

One of the obvious answers is: names need to match the era, culture, or setting. In Amish fiction, giving a man the name “Maverick” wouldn’t work unless it’s a nickname with a believable history behind it. For The Christmas Remedy we consulted a blue book of names and addresses that Cindy received from an Amish friend in Pennsylvania who runs a country store. Cindy has other Amish resources and has put the names in a Word document to pull from as needed. She also compiled a list of all names she’s ever used in a book—something very useful to refer back to after twenty-something books written!

Another thing to consider is the name’s meaning and connotation. A character named Hope probably wouldn’t make a good villain. In The Christmas Remedy, we wanted our main character to have a Christmas-themed name—after all, she was born on the Amish holiday of Second Christmas. So her parents decided to go against Amish tradition, and they named her Holly Noelle. Her siblings, also born around Christmastime, are Iva “Ivy” Zook and Ezra “Red” Zook. Since the Amish often stick to a short list of traditional names, they tend to use nicknames like Ivy and Red.

Have you ever met a family who names all their kids in a theme of the same first letter? This can be cute in real life, but it’s best avoided when writing fiction. On television or the big screen, they avoid having characters with the same hair color or hairstyle or skin color or body build. The visual differences are necessary to keep from confusing viewers. In a book, the name is instantly defining on page, and if two or more characters have the same letter sounds at the beginning, it’s problematic for readers.

When naming all of my children, it was important to me that I found names that had nickname potential. Some parents feel the opposite and want to find names that can’t be shortened or changed. Not every character has to have a nickname, like Matthew to Matt or Abigail to Abi, but it can be a cute thing in romance. I have a friend named Jeffrey who is often called “Jeff,” but in his mind he’s Jeffrey. My two year old, Silas, refers to himself exclusively as “Si Guy.”

Who are your characters to each other? To themselves? Names help connect a reader to the characters, so if after writing on the story for a while you realize something about the name of your character isn’t working for the story, don’t be afraid to embrace a name change.
One of my favorite names from a series I’ve read is Claire. It works for the characters and readers on many levels. It makes me think of someone having clarity, and she does, even when overwhelmed with total confusion.

What is the name of a favorite character from a book you’ve read?
Erin Woodsmall is a writer, musician, wife, and mom of the three. She has edited, brainstormed, and researched books with Cindy for almost a decade. She and Cindy have recently become co-authors and have written three books.  Cindy Woodsmall is the New York Times and CBA best-selling author of twenty-two works of fiction. She’s best known for her Amish fiction. Her connection with the Amish community has been widely featured in national media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal and ABC Nightline. Cindy has won numerous awards and has been a finalist for the prestigious Christy, Rita, and Carol Awards. Cindy and her husband reside near the foothills of the North Georgia Mountains. 

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