The biggest complaint about my debut novel, Paris, Rue des Martyrs? All of the “Claires.” Two extremely minor characters—a shopkeeper we see a couple of times and another person who is mentioned once but never seen—were named Claire. Another minor character was named Clara. Since these characters made so few appearances and didn’t play major roles in the story, I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t see it as a problem. Until it was mentioned in some of my reviews. Ouch! The good news is most readers said it was a bit confusing but then had other positive things to say. Still. It got me thinking and made me overhaul my whole manner of choosing character names.
In the past, I would consider two factors when choosing a character name:
-Is it appropriate for the cultural background and age of my character?
-Can most people pronounce it?
Clearly, this wasn’t enough. Sure, those points are important, but all of a sudden, as I started thinking about the whole naming issue, I realized that if I hoped to avoid problems in future books, I needed to start asking myself more questions!
Now, I start my search for character names in much the same way as in the past, but that’s about the only aspect of the process that hasn’t changed. So, first stop, baby name websites. Second stop, for older characters, an Internet search for common names from the time period.
And then I consider/do the following before making any final decisions:
Not only do I no longer choose similar names like Claire and Clara, but I avoid choosing names that start with the same letter. So I would avoid Jennifer, Janet and Jane in the same story unless there is a reason for the similarity. If there is a reason, no problem. But if it’s random, what’s the point of adding an element that might create confusion?
-Make a list
It might seem silly to list the characters, as if writing a play, because clearly I’m not going to forget the names of my main characters. But I might forget that I named the shopkeeper mentioned once early in the book Jennifer. And by Chapter 18, I might create another minor character with a similar name and not even realize it. Sure, I would pick this up in the editing process, but it’s always better to be organized right from the start.
-Basic isn’t always the best
When choosing foreign names, I stick by my original idea: If you’re writing for English-speaking readers, choose a name they can pronounce. And one that doesn’t result in gender confusion. For instance, in French, Jean-Marie is a man’s name. However, this doesn’t mean every French girl should be named Claire or Anne. I fell into that trap already! So expand your horizons beyond the basics.
-Take minor characters seriously
It’s unfortunate when an issue with the names of two or three minor characters overshadows all of the author’s hard work. So even if that character’s name will appear one time in my novel, when I create it, I give it just as much attention as the name of my protagonist. Often, one’s downfall can be in the details!
Is my new system complicated or unwieldy? Strangely, no. It’s given me structure, while still keeping the creativity alive. What’s in a name? A lot more than I ever expected.
Have you ever had this problem? Was it hard to wrap your head around renaming a character?
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Adria J. Cimino is the author of Amazon Best-Selling novel Paris, Rue des Martyrs and Close to Destiny, as well as The Creepshow and A Perfumer’s Secret. She also co-founded boutique publishing house Velvet Morning Press. Prior to jumping into the publishing world full time, she spent more than a decade as a journalist at news organizations including The AP and Bloomberg News. Adria is a member of Tall Poppy Writers, which unites bright authors with smart readers. She lives in Paris with her husband, Didier, and daughter, Phèdre. When she isn’t writing, you can find Adria at her neighborhood café watching the world go by.