The perfect character name isn’t always perfect. Many times the name you first fell in love with isn’t the best choice anymore, and this can happen during the first draft or during the third or last. Changing character names is common throughout the revision process, but sometimes it’s difficult to know when you need to change a name you liked. How do you know when it’s time to scrap a name and pick a new one?
There are a few simple tests that each name should pass. If you haven’t already tested a character’s name, then you need to test it now. This will ensure that the name fits within your world and matches your character without detracting from the story.
Test 1: Does the Character Name Match the Era (or Fictional Society if You Invented One) of Your Story?
A name needs to match the era you’re writing in, especially when you’re writing historical fiction. You don’t want to name characters born in the ’70s or ’80s popular names from today (2017). This also applies to location. You don’t want to name a Finish man Diego unless you have a really good background reason to give him a Spanish name. This makes naming sites, such as babynames.com, invaluable if you’re simply looking up name origins.
Genealogy sites can be great resources for finding foreign of historical names, although not all sites are free. Government census data is also a great resource, but it may not contain information like origin or meaning.
If you want something more local or personal, the library usually has old yearbooks that you can flip through.
Great Sites with Census Data for the US, UK, Canada, and Australia
If you need naming resources for stories based in the US, the Social Security Administration website has some great options for looking up popular names in US history. On the main baby names page, you can look up popular names by birth year or how the popularity of a name has changed over time. However, they also have a list of the top 5 popular names for each gender for the past 100 years and you can search for the top 200 names of each gender by the decade back to the 1880s. If you need something more specific, you can look up popular names by birth year and state and by Puerto Rico or other territories.
UK name history is available at the Office for National Statistics website, with the current name bulletin featuring advanced 2016 data. Names are also available by decade (1904-1994) at the same website, and Anna Powell-Smith’s comparison tool covers names after 1996 based on the Office for National Statistics’ data. They also have a page that lists sources for finding local name information.
A little more limited, ParentsCanada offers some name resources for Canadians. They have a current top 100 baby names and a baby name search tool. Babynology has a list of Australian names, including Aboriginal names.
If you want more specifics, try looking into state, territory, or province census records. These often can provide more local history data.
Test 2: Can You and Some Friends Pronounce the Character Name the Same?
Ask several people (separately) to pronounce the name by reading it. If your testers have a hard time deciding how to pronounce a name, they all pronounce the (uncommon or made up) name differently, or the name sounds wrong when someone else says it aloud, then it’s time to update the name.
First names that end with the same syllable as the beginning of the last name may slur together so the name sounds different depending on the reader. This can also cause problems with audiobooks or when someone is reading aloud.
Sometimes a name is outside of regular pronunciation rules, so a reader may not understand how to pronounce it. This causes the name to have various pronunciations. This is often common in fantasy and science fiction series, especially when you use uncommon or made up names that don’t follow usual pronunciation rules.
If the name can’t be pronounced or read properly, it’s time to consider a different name. However, if the name matches its cultural roots, then you should consider including some sort of pronunciation guide, whether it’s at the end of the book or you sneak it into the prose. Your readers have to be able to read the name phonetically.
Test 3: Does the Name Have a Similar Sound to Another Character Name?
Names that sound similar cause reader confusion. If your characters are named Ann, Andrei, and Anthony, you should rename a few. Your readers may not remember who is Dan or who is Don. This applies to main characters, secondary characters, and tertiary characters. They can’t all sound the same. So consider renaming Cassandra something else so she isn’t mixed up with Alexandra.
This should also be considered when choosing last names, especially when the last names are used as preferred names. Having a group of crime investigators calling each other “Johnson,” “Jackson,” and “Jacobson” will be too much, even if their full names aren’t similar.
Test 4: Google It
If you haven’t googled the name by now, you need to. You don’t want to accidentally give your character the same name of a politician in Britain because you weren’t aware that the name had recognition elsewhere. But it isn’t just politicians. Accidental name copying is easy, and someone may not be happy finding their name being used for a savage killer or a secondary chronic drunk. People like to keep tabs on their reputations, and they aren’t a fan of name sharing when the character is associated with something the original name holder doesn’t support or dislikes.
Googling is also a great way to make sure there isn’t another book with a character of the same name. There’s nothing as frustrating as the perfect name you’ve chosen to pop up in a book written 4 years earlier that you finally read from your to-read list, and that book shares the same genre or the character has similar personality traits. You want to avoid copying another book’s character name, even if is an accidental mistake.
Tips for Changing a Character Name
So you’ve tested a name and it’s failed at least one test, if not two. Changing a name is simple, but you have to make sure that you catch all the name changes in the document. Find and Replace can be a great tool for catching all the name occurrences, but you also want to make sure you don’t change a word that had the original name in it. Such as the word “bobbin” when you change Bob’s name to George. You may never live down Georgebin if it somehow makes it to the final print. This can be avoided by not replacing every occurrence of the name all at once. Instead, click the Find Next and Replace buttons (not Replace All). You can find more information about using Find and Replace in Editing with Find and Replace.
You also want to make sure you change any nicknames used.
As you choose a new name, make sure to apply the same four tests. They’ll ensure your character names are unique and enhance your story.