writing

Falling into a Character Name Rut

When it comes to choosing character names, I have a terrible habit. It stems from the fact that I love names and spend far too much time thinking about them. Settling on only one causes me physical pain. To avoid the terror of choosing a name, I often use a placeholder when writing drafts. That temporary name usually begins with an “A”.

A-Muskox

I’m not sure why “A” has such allure. It’s likely that my brain defaults to the path of least resistance. Starting with names at the beginning of the alphabet is easy. The names are just…there.

I try not to worry about the fit of this initial name. I’ll pick a different one later, I tell myself. So characters in my first drafts will all inevitably be named Alex, or Anna, or Arthur, or Aubrey. Then the real trouble begins.

When I spend hundreds of hours with characters, their name becomes a part of them. I can no longer separate Ava and Allen from the personalities that I’ve created. Unfortunately for me, few people want to read a book with characters that have similar names. In order to make the story work, I have to change what I call my characters.

The process breaks my heart. Like so many parts of writing, it is just a mental hurdle. And I do throw myself over it eventually. There are so many other letters in the alphabet other than “A”. It would be a shame to waste them.

Still, I’ll always hold a place in my heart for Adam, Andrew, Aaron, Abigail, Antonio, Alyssa, Alexia, Adrian, Amelia, Alicia, and all of the others. Over the years, they’ve allowed me to dive into writing drafts. Without them, I would have been paralyzed trying to find the perfect name.

For my next draft though, I may need to start using names that start with “B”.

Who knows what will happen then?

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32 thoughts on “Falling into a Character Name Rut

  1. The mental hurdles of writing; well said. I relate to that so much. Names however have always been such an easy choice that they seem to pick themselves. I’ll admit the A’s find themselves included quite often. My first male protagonist was an Alex. Currently, I’m working with an Annelise that I literally just refer to as A in the plot scribbles. So, much in a name; I think I would find it near impossible to switch one after starting though. I don’t think I ever have *insert thoughtful chin-stroking face here*

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    1. Sometimes I think that all writing is just a set of those hurdles, one after another. We get over them all eventually. That’s what I tell myself at any rate.

      I’m glad to hear I’m not alone in falling into certain habits with names. And Annelise is a great one! I’ll have to stop myself from stealing it. 😉

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      1. So true! As long as we can talk ourselves through them and keep going, we’ll be fine… someday!

        All names are stolen. Steal away! The likelihood of our Annelise’s ending up the same is pretty slim. Heehee, but branching out from A is good too!

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  2. I find myself in similar traps.Left on its own, my brain chooses a letter of the day, and then declares that all characters’ names shall henceforth begin with that letter. I get around it by looking up authors from different countries in Wikipedia. Then I write it down so I can remember it, and add it to my own list.

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  3. Very relatable post – I find deciding on names one of the most difficult parts of writing stories, but so important, because you’re going to have to live with the characters for quite a long time!

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  4. yes, that’s a problem! I’ve read a number of books recently with so many similar names (starting with the same initial) that you almost need a chart to keep the characters straight. I don’t want to have to sort out which “A” we are starting about–make the names dissimilar for us simple folk. thanks! good article, as always, Kristen!

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    1. Goofy names are the best. It’s odd. I don’t necessarily like puns in my everyday life, but when character names draw on that type of humor, it always makes me smile. (And I’m jealous of your ability to create humor like that. I long ago determined it was best that I leave that to the experts. 😉 )

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  5. Funnily enough, I’m talking character names on TSRA tomorrow. Choosing names can be hard… but, and this is a biggy – I HATE books with names that are easily confused and that includes names with the same letter (unless they are a pair, like Dylan and Dougall). Even surnames that are similar can lead to huge problems of ‘which one is that again?” Sometimes I’ve even given up and DNF’d the book.
    Each of my main characters has a character sheet (spreadsheet) with physical and emotional details, background, hidden secrets, quirks, loves and hates, etc. What pet would they have is a good character indicator! Anyone who gets a point of view (POV) gets a character sheet. How else do you know their POV?

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    1. I hope your talk went well! And I love the organization of your character sheet. I tend to have working documents where I throw bits of information about important characters, but I could definitely afford to be more organized with them. A spreadsheet may be the way to do that.

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      1. And the other great site if writing anything historical is the US social security site, which publishes the top 200 favourite names of each decade throughout the last two and a half centuries… There is also a UK equivalent if you’re interested, but I’ve found it sheer gold when writing any alternative history. Names have power…

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  6. My main goal with names is to always ensure they are different enough to distinguish each character in the story and ensure readers don’t get confused. I admire your ability to use placeholders though. I just can’t. Once I’ve locked in names they become part of my character design. It’s to the point that I’ll keep character names even if I grow to hate them. I just can’t change them after investing the time and work with those particular creations.

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    1. I’m jealous! It’s strange, I occasionally have names in my head that I begin calling my character, but then I often decide those names aren’t fit for public consumption. There isn’t anything that is obviously wrong about the names. I just feel like I can’t use them for one reason or another.

      …Which all means that I probably spend too much time stuck in my own head. 😉

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  7. Oh, how I hate choosing names! The hospital staff got a bit strict with us when our second child was born because they needed us to settle on one before they could let us leave. Eventually we made it out…
    It hasn’t been easier with fictional characters, and once I finally found one for my female protagonist in my WIP that I liked, I found out that it was considered cliché in my genre- ARGH!
    Thanks for sharing your process 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, now I’m imagining a world where people are held hostage depending on their name choices. (Though I guess that isn’t that different than this world!)

      And I understand what you mean about settling on a name only to find that it has been overused. It’s a heartbreaking realization. And some names are just good names even if they have been used frequently!

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  8. I enjoyed this post! You may find it interesting to look into the personality traits associated with people whose names start with a particular letter. Names with the letter “A” usually represent people who are strong, independent and confident. However names that start with the letter “B” can be frivolous and emotional but who thrive on human attention and interaction. So basically it depends on the type of character you are developing!

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    1. Oh, that’s interesting! I know there are all sorts of theories around the meaning behind names and how they shape personalities. (And I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m drawn to a letter known for being independent!)

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