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Jul 10

Naming characters: The Upside of Creativity, and a Trap

A writer-centric post today on one of the most enjoyable parts of being a writer – the creativity it allows me. Specifically, in making up names. I’ve talked before about naming settings (cities, planets) and items (vehicles, weapons, ships), but this post is strictly about naming characters…and a trap one can fall into.

A few months back, I did a beta read for a friend, and one of my critiques was alliterative names. It was a fantasy novella, out of my usual comfort zone of reading, so I didn’t know if that was a theme or style fantasy used. However, after the fourth character was introduced whose name started with a V, I was completely lost. I felt it made it difficult for the reader to follow, especially when a story has several characters that impact the overall story arc using that letter.

Let’s do a little quiz. Here is a photo still from one of my all-time favorite movies (and guilty shoot-em-up pleasures), Aliens. It’s a picture of two of the most visible and popular characters (not to mention two that survived quite long, so they had plenty of screen time). It’s Hicks and Hudson; everyone knows those names. What’s the quiz? BEFORE you scroll down to the answer, answer this – which one is Hicks, and which one is Hudson?

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Answer: It’s Hudson on the left, Hicks on the right. Even I to this day sometimes mix them up thinking back to the movie, as they are in so many scenes together, they are integral to the plot arc, and their names start with the same letter.

Maybe you got it correct, maybe not, but the point I’m illustrating is that characters need distinct names from each other, and ones that aren’t overly clichéd (and by clichéd, I mean Cliff Stone for the tough guy, Melvin Poindexter for the nerd, Vlad Bloodworth for a vampire, and so on – they can take away from the story).

I fell into this trap with my first novel, Gabriel’s Redemption, and it wasn’t until the second story in the trilogy was released that someone called me on it. I never caught it. And it was pretty bad, I must say. Two very different characters, one the ultimate bad guy in the book, and one a heroic captain. One was MacFarland, one McTiernan. Holy crap, what a boo-boo.

The reason? I’ve used random name generators online for many character names, and I just keep hitting Refresh until one catches my eye. One that sounds right for the character and is easy to say (a popular character named Varsonofy Panteleimonovich Krestovozdvizhensky is going to stop the reader in his or her tracks). I had MacFarland from a previous idea and put it into the story, but when I got to needing a name for a ship captain later on, I resorted to the random name generator, and it looked good. Never made the connection.

So…did you get Hicks and Hudson correct? Any name issues you’ve run across in books, or traps you’ve fallen into?

About the author

Steve Umstead

Steve Umstead has been the owner of a Caribbean & Mexico travel company for the past ten+ years, but never forgot his lifelong dream of becoming an author. After a successful stab at National Novel Writing Month, he decided to pursue his dream more vigorously…but hasn’t given up the traveling.
Steve lives in scenic (tongue-in-cheek) New Jersey with his wife, two kids, and several bookshelves full of other authors’ science fiction novels. Gabriel’s Redemption was his debut novel, published in February of 2011.

15 comments

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  1. shayfabbro

    I DID get Hudson and Hicks correct!!! :D And it’s funny that the name screw-up happens in the movie!

    1. Steve Umstead

      I still get them backwards…

  2. Erin Roberts

    I’ve noticed that I tend to name characters by respelling a word to suit my needs. I have a character named Newn, which is pronounced and means the word Noon. In the current story I’m working on I did it with the word Kanji, but removed the A. I’ve noticed it makes interesting names.

  3. thehowlingpig

    Connie Willis came to speak to a lit class I had in college. Her biggest recommendation was to never have characters with similar names. Some of her later books have LOTS of characters and it’s clear that she had trouble sticking to that rule.

  4. Karl

    Interesting article, though I’d argue that in the example you’ve given – Aliens – the similarity is intentional (in fact Lt. Gorman gets them mixed up early in the film). I think you’re initially meant to see them as simply generic ‘marines’ (later in the film, Burke refers to Hicks as ‘just a grunt’), but they actually differentiate themselves through their actions – Hudson, for all his early bragadoccio, turns out to be somewhat cowardly; and Hicks, though initially quiet and unassuming ultimately displays an inner strength and heroism.

    I think it’s actually a clever use of similarity in their names..

    1. Steve Umstead

      Excellent point – generic names for ‘expendables’ that turn into more prominent ones. And yes, I forgot to mention Gorman’s own mistake. Well said.

  5. AJ Powers

    I was just wondering about this the other day, why so many people put “Jack Musclemilk” or something ridiculous like that for names of their protagonists. It’s as cheesy as porn character names, and I have a hard time taking a character seriously with those goofy names.

  6. Robert "Sharky" Pruneda

    I’ve never really thought about the whole name situation in this light until reading this post. Your example from Aliens helped clearly bring that point across. I second guessed myself when I tried to match the names to the faces. I may be renaming a character or two in my next book.

  7. Keri Peardon

    I have to work to limit my “J” names for men (because there are so many I like) and “A” names. (In one family I have an Avram, Ami, and Avi, but luckily Avi is the only person of significance, and you don’t see him until the third book; the other two only make a couple of walk-on appearances earlier in the series.)

    Originally, I had an Isaac and Israel in the same story. Even though Isaac dies early and never overlaps with Israel’s character, his memory is important enough that his name keeps coming up, and I decided that was too confusing, so Israel became Joshua.

    I do sometimes recycle the names of expendables–so I have more than one Mark in the series, and I have a one-time person and a dog who are both Ben’s (in different books). I actually like recycling unimportant names because it seems more natural; in real life there are people who have the same name–especially if it’s a common name, like Mark.

  8. acflory

    Good point about names that I’d never considered before. I suspect that not having names at all and referring to all of the characters by their titles is going to be even worse :( Oh well. Too late now.

  9. Tabby D. (@cuddlyribbit)

    Yay I got Hicks and Hudson right. Then again I’m a huuuge Aliens fan and have seen them alot. Especially that one. As for the issue of character names I think it is important to make them distinct and at the same time also be sure that they’re not cliche. Though the MacFarland and McTiernan thing would not have gotten me, because if you read anything to do with Scottish or Irish history/lineage that’s gonna happen quite a deal.

  10. Andrew Lawston

    Of course, Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the ultimate in this kind of naming confusion, even the observant and calculating Claudius gets their names mixed up within half a dozen lines of meeting them.

    I get names by going through my friends’ Facebook contacts until a name catches my eye. It’s a gentle way of prodding me into using a more diverse cast of characters, and a good excuse to be on Facebook when I should otherwise be writing.

  11. danniehill

    You are so right about names to remember and not confuse with other characters. Great post, Steve. One thing I do– not with every character– and usually not the main characters– is I used the name of people I know and like. I let these people know about their names and it guarantees a few sells (lol). Even if the character is a badguy they love it and tell there friends. I read books where the characters names are almost unpronounceable and it really turns me off of the story.

    The names should fit the era or location but for me it’s fun to think up names that are easy to remember and say something about the character.

  12. Dean Evans

    Hi I see your point ,I find with names it’s best if they scan, in fantasy writers like “Alien” names such as Jristram for example did you trip over the J or the r one has to be silent for it to scan Jistram , place names I just recognise and don’t bother reading. I do struggle with some sifi because they have to make up words for new things,these should scan also or they trip the readers.

  13. Adam Shaftoe

    Aliens hung a bit of a lantern on the whole Hicks/Hudson thing by having Lt. Gorman get the two of them mixed up. I’ve always took that to mean the names of those soldiers are less important than the actions which define their characters. Hudson is a nutbar who panics under fire. Hicks is the consummate iceman who with a few more years probably would have got sent off to OCS. Even if viewers get their names wrong the essence of the characters remains.

    With respect to MacFarland and McTiernan, I suppose the names could have been a little more distinct, but just like Hicks and Hudson the their essence is found in who they are, not what they’re called.

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