The Golden Rules for Creating Names in Fiction

Like I said last week, I think naming character, places, and businesses in fiction is an art. Before you hurry away to invent hundred of memorable names, keep in mind the two golden rules for creating names in fiction.

Names must be pronounceable.

Whatever language I write in, whatever audience I write for, I must create names that my readers can easily figure out the pronunciation for. When I was a teen, I read Murder for Christmas by Agatha Christie. The butler was named Tresselian. I had no idea how that sounded, so I either made it Tremayne or just bleeped over it.

Mario Puzo used the last name Corleone for his Mafia dynasty in The Godfather. Whether readers read it as Core-lee-own or Core-lee-own-ee, the name was easy for readers of English to get at least a close approximation. In his novel The Last Don, Mr. Puzo used the last name Clericuzio. I think I know how to say it, but as a reader I’d like a name that was easier to sound out. But being an extremely successful author, Mr. Puzo was in a position to dump a mouthful like that in his fiction.

Names must not resemble each other.

If I have a character named Bob, I should not have another one named Bobbie. Or Mary and Mason. Or Caroline and Carl. Or Mr. Terrell and Mrs. Terry. With so many names to choose from, I don’t have an excuse for picking lookalike names. It only confuses the reader and makes them reread sections when they get the name wrong. The more they have to reread, the more irritated they become.

Even when I write about an extended family, and they have a tradition of handing down a certain name, I still have to differentiate it somehow. Bob’s son goes by Robert, and Robert’s son can go by a nickname like Chip.

The only exception to the above rule is if the names that can be mistaken for one another are part of the plot. Mrs. Fleming has Mr. Flemish’s luggage delivers to her hotel room and discovers one suitcase contains a bag of jewels.

Have you read a story that violate the golden rules for creating names in fiction?

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