Pub Rants

The Power of Names

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Status: Kristin has read and responded to all email queries through Feb. 6, 2006. If you haven’t received a response, it’s not because one wasn’t sent.

Reminder: I don’t resend if it bounces back to me. I don’t keep track of changes in email addresses if you have changed yours, and I don’t play with spam blocking programs that ask me to log in and verify that the email I just sent isn’t spam. And that goes for requested pages as well.

You can always resend the query if you’re living in doubt.

My reader comes in on Mondays so I’ve always got a lot to say on Tuesday morning.

I’m noticing some interesting trends in character names that I thought I would share.

In the world of the Paranormal, there have been a lot of RHIANNONs lately. I can’t help but think of Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing just a very contemporary association.

If your character is a witch, it’s okay to get a little creative with your names. Get me interested in the story by virtue of a really cool name. If I get another Rhiannon witch, I think I’ll have to pass on principle.

Contemporary stories. There have been a lot of KATEs and KATIEs as of late. Once again, nothing wrong with that name but it might be a little harder for your heroine to stand out when I’m reading my pile.

Historical/Regency romances. Time to avoid any derivative of Devil for your rakish hero. I’ve seen it all. Devlin etc.

I’m sure other names will come up and I’ll keep you posted.

Now, creating interesting, varied, or cool character names won’t necessarily open the door. Only good writing will do that. It’s just another facet of the whole package that you need to keep in mind because trust me, it’s on our mind if Angie and I have done 50 partials during the day and have had at least 5 or 6 manuscripts with the name Kate or Katie as the heroine and at least one Rhiannon (and that’s the third one this week).

You want your story to stand out. Character names can help.

Flip side of the coin. Don’t go too bizarre. I see that in SF and Fantasy partials occasionally. Names should be pronounceable at least.

57 Responses

  1. Mars said:

    That’s amazing. Rhiannon is a beautiful name and the only one I ever knew in real life was my old best friend from years ago. It’s so interesting that it’s showing up now, since I’ve never met another one or even heard mention of that name.

    I never really thought about how many other people might be using the same name for a character as me. I’m glad I didn’t use Rhiannon or Kate/Katie though, that’s for sure!

    Interesting post. Thanks for your ever informative blog.

  2. Diana Peterfreund said:

    So funny about the Kates, Kristen. I did a “Top Ten Things Judges Thought” when I coordinated the chick lit chapter Stiletto contest and “Enough with the Kates!” was on the list.

    (Jane was a close second).

    I also blogged recently about the overuse of unpronounceable fantasy names.

  3. Anonymous said:

    I have written a fantasy novel and one of the main characters last name is “Smith”. Why? ’cause his father was a blacksmith. I have another character who’s last name is “Longsole”. Why? ’cause her father was a shoe maker. I think there should be meaning to names, it gives them more power if you will and makes them more memorable.

  4. Anonymous said:

    I once read a list of things to check if your ‘character’ is a mary sue. This was specifically for fanfiction, but it mentioned things like if you put to much focus on the character’s eyes, you name the character a variation of Devil, Raven, or us an unpronouceable ‘Elven’ name.

    I always prefer actual names with odd spellings, Eryk is one from a story I’m reading right now. And then names that are no longer ‘common’ for modern day. (Current fav. is Misha.)

    I didn’t know about the Rhiannon problem, or the Kate problem. Thanks for the heads up. -CLD

  5. Anonymous said:

    Aargh!!! I sent a query 1/30 and never heard back. I don’t have spam blockers or any of that other stuff. Now I have to resend and wait week after week. Sigh……….

  6. Jpatrick said:

    These little snippets of zeitgeist in the form or character names are interesting. One thing that will lose me fast in a fantasy story is a big cast of odd names. I’ll probably put it down.

    Andre Norton could get away with it. Frankly, I don’t even forgive Anne McCaffrey for some of her names. Don’t ask for specifics. I’ve already forgotten the names, and that’s the point.

  7. December Quinn said:

    I guess you’re not seeing all those vampires with oddly spelled, Russian-sounding names? 🙂 If I see one more vampire named Grigor, Viktor, Mikal (or Mykal), Dante, etc…

    C’mon. Use some creativity and name these guys something that doesn’t make them sound like bit parts in Crime and Punishment.

  8. Eileen said:

    Ever notice you never meet a vampire named Bob? I think naming one Pierce could be fun. And when is the last time a heroine was named Eunice or Flo?

  9. Elektra said:

    The concensus over at the crapometer seems to be that most people hate ‘creative spellings’ of names.
    One of my character’s names (the evil one, in fact) was my mother’s very German maiden name.

  10. pam said:

    Figures, my current heroine is named Kate. I had no idea it was so popular. But, she is staying Kate…it’s just who she is.

    On the other hand, I think a vampire named Bob would be hilarious. I’d love to see that.


  11. Anonymous said:

    I named my son Bob – in a world filled with Justins, Liams, Brandons, Jacksons and Dakotas, Bob is a breath of fresh air.

  12. Shanna Swendson said:

    I’m not sure how often you see Rhiannon in published work, but if you’ve ever even been around the edges of the fanfiction community on the Internet, it seems like the screennames for half of the authors seem to be some variation of Rhiannon — and, oddly, many of their stories seem to involve a character named Rhiannon who becomes romantically involved with the hero of whatever TV show, book or movie the story is based on. Hmm, go figure. I wonder how many of these submissions started out as stories like this and just had the names and identifying details of the originals changed.

    I may be guilty of the Katie thing (maybe I was a trendsetter!), but I did name a gargoyle Sam.

  13. Shelli Stevens said:

    Uh oh, now I’m thinking the name Christy is probably a little overdone, too. The thought even crossed my mind as I wrote my book. But she was a character carried over from another story.

    What a good point this is, though.

  14. Cindy Procter-King said:

    I love the name Kate, but it’s very overused, in the romance genre, anyway, as a heroine’s name. I love Rhiannon, too, and, yep, I associate it with Fleetwood Mac. Oh, those were the days.


  15. Faith said:

    I try to give my characters names that reflect their personalities.

    I like unusual names, but not bizarre. My two daughters are named Jade and Ivory.

  16. NL Gassert said:

    I have eight baby naming books from different countries (wherever I go, I pick one up). Great for inspiration. Old phonebooks are super for finding unique last names. And I always check my choice against the top one hundred names for the year my character was born in. I avoid anything in the top twenty. Then I make sure it’s not a name that’s in favor right now. With older characters, though, I purposely choose a name from the very top of the list. I wouldn’t want to name a grandmother Ashley or Kaitlyn. And because I’m anal when it comes to little details I would never name a character with blond hair something that means “raven haired warrior.” I love Gideon for antagonists. Depending on your source, it means “destroyer” or “fierce battler.”

  17. Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said:

    Oh my, I sent material on January 25th and never heard. I’m going to resend using a fall back email. This is frustrating. I don’t have email blocking either, and my spam goes to a special folder. I don’t delete until I check it. Oh OH OH OH.

  18. Gina said:

    For the most part, my heroines names just come to me… maybe it’s because I can’t tell her story until she tells me her name – lol

    In the current one her name is Gracie, but I also have an Emily (which along with Emma is really popular too), a Cate, and a Gillian in other stories I am working on or have finished.


  19. Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said:

    Ok, I resent my material using an alternative email. I hope it works this time.

    Names … They give me fits. I tried to follow reasonable philological rules creating my pixies’ names. But I received a comment from an editor in Australia saying I should drop the apostrophe.

    It does seem to be over used. I am using it as a philologist might, but I’m going to take his advice.

    The names I chose consist of a matronymic and a given name. Sha’el is El of the house of Sha. I intended the apostrophe to be, not a guttural stop, but an unsounded catch of the breath.

    I think I’m switching to “Sha El,” and “Katra Mia.”

    Back to the rejection I didn’t receive (it probably was a rejection, huh): I was worried you just wrote me off, and I thought I wouldn’t hear. Very nice of you to tell us what’s going on. I resent.

    When you get it, just type back “Oh, Dang it! I saw this and hated it. Go away!” I’ll only sob into my pillow for a half a day.

  20. M. G. Tarquini said:

    I name all my characters John and Mary. It’s simple and everybody can pronounce the names. When it gets confusing, I throw in a Harry or a Bob, sometimes a Jane or a Susan. I make everybody cousins and their last names are always Jones.

  21. The Beautiful Schoolmarm said:

    I second what Nadja said: a good multicultural baby name book (or two, or more) is indispensable.

    I also try to avaoid naming them aftar any students I’ve had, which is getting difficult the longer I teach.

  22. Dana Y. T. Lin said:

    I have a bad habit of not being able to name my main characters until I have their family trees back ten generations done. My office wall has family trees taped to it from top to bottom. One time, my nephew snuck in my office just to find out what eventually happened to these two characters in my YA fantasy. Sneaky guy! He figured it out by following the family trees and timelines on the wall. Argh. Now I’ll have to go kill him.

  23. Anonymous said:

    I name all of my antagonists after ex-boyfriends. Sue me.

    I have never read a vampire novel in my life, but if you write one with a vampire named Bob, I’ll buy three copies.

  24. Benny said:

    In my experience (friends’ work, college workshops), people who spend waaaaaay too much time coming up with special names for their characters don’t spend nearly enough time on the story itself. It seems like genre writers have this hang-up, especially, and YA writers who want quirky, girly names for their quirky, girly characters.

    Up until 1944, Mary was the most common name in America. The Baby Namer at Oxygen has a multi-cultural search feature, and then also a survey of about six different generations to figure out what different names “sound like” to regular people. Which names sound vegetarian, for example, or shy, or prissy. It’s a nice change of pace for young women who are already refusing to let their daughters be called Madison (Maddie), McKenzie, Taylor, Baily, Blakely, Caitlin, or any other girl nom ju jour.

    I give my characters common names. I want them to seem like everyday people, and let the story come from their actions and dialogue. I hate when I’m reading a novel (any genre), and my eyes trip over a character’s name every time it’s thrown in. (Some writers go that extra annoying step- giving their character a weird name, then giving them a weird nickname.) Rhiannon is trying too hard. I get the same Stevie Nicks vibe. It doesn’t translate very well onto paper.

    Interesting post, as always!

  25. Anonymous said:

    b’s comment is funny because i know of someone who spends an amazing amount of time on names…I spend very little, btw. I write fantasy, so I do try to come up with something other than bob, but other than that, I use no rules or baby books…and I’ve been criticized because people think my names come from a particular region — until they come across one that doesn’t — and then they’re frustrated…isn’t that why we write? To frustrate people:)

  26. yossarian said:

    I accidentally named an unappealing character after a friend’s stepmother. I didn’t even think of it (not consciously, anyway), until she saw the story in print and called to “congratulate” me.

  27. Jen said:

    Mars and Bernita are both right, I think, about the Celtic connection with Rhiannon. The name appears quite often in Celtic mythology.

    As for character names, for some of my fantasy characters, I’ve taken the names of people I actually know and reversed them. “Lydona” became “Anodyl” (a elfin scoutmaster for his clan) and “Ashlyn” became “Nylhsa” (a half-elf healer).

  28. Rebecca B. said:

    I have to know my characters’ names before writing the story. At least the main characters’ names. And they just seem to come me, naturally.

  29. Rebecca B. said:

    come TO me . . . lol

    I usually use names of people I know or have known, and use variations on their names. Using last names as first names, etc.

  30. M. G. Tarquini said:

    I have never read a vampire novel in my life, but if you write one with a vampire named Bob, I’ll buy three copies.

    I have never written a vampire novel in my life, but if you think writing one with a vampire named Bob will get me published, I am soooooo on it.

  31. NL Gassert said:

    Dana, I do family trees as well. And horribly involved character sheets.

    B, you’re right. Some people spent too much time on extraneous stuff. I’ve been known to spend weeks just getting to know my characters. But then, I also spend weeks figuring out my story: what some call outlining and I know to cure writer’s block.

  32. Anonymous said:


    I’m reading Enchanted, Inc. right now. In fact, as soon as I’m done here, I’ll stay up way too late with it. Delightful. Adorable. Fabulous. I don’t mind the Katie. It fits. I named my protag Kate, when I started the manuscript 2 years ago. They are all over the place now. Must have been something in the ethers. My query went in Feb 9. It even has “Kate” in the title. I’ll probably be the 26th one and be tossed. Alas. And I’m TOTALLY open for a name change.

  33. December Quinn said:

    I have a vampire named Ed, does that count? 🙂 When it gets pubbed (see, I’m thinking positively) will you buy three copies, or do I need to write in a Bob? Cuz it’s still a WIP, I can do whatever I want to it. 🙂

    Sha’el, I’d leave the name as is. Because Sha El makes me immediately think of Jor El and Kal El…but that’s just me. Other people who aren’t married to fanboys might not have the same association.

  34. Anonymous said:

    Shanna, I loved ‘Sam the gargoyle’.

    And I’m really glad to see your name here, because it reminds me that I meant to pick up a copy of ‘Enchanted, Inc.’ to send back to the Orient with my daughter. She just called to say she’ll be here in 28 hours, so I’d better get shopping.

    I’d read about a vampire named Bob, too.

  35. Bernita said:

    Names have evocative associations and that is why some writer’s spend time on them, so the subconscious nuances are in line for the reader.
    A good name can save a lot of “tell.”
    Further,identity of character is related to his/her name, which is why some writers prefer to have a name selected as part of the ducks-in-a-row realized character before they begin writing.
    If a name leaps at you, fully realized, as from the forehead of Zeus, good for you, but those who spend time over the selection are not necessarily wasting it.
    My heroine has an unusual name – but it happens to be one picked from the family tree.
    Thank you, Jen.

  36. Diana Peterfreund said:

    Charles Dickens had four writing rules. Just four. One was about picking the right names for his characters. He was a master at it.

    I work very hard on character names. A lot of thought goes into it. I had to change a character name at the copyediting stage of my book for legal reasons,a dn it was MURDER trying to come up with a substitute.

    Shanna, your “Kate” never bothered me. I only noticed the trend because judges would write me and say, “I judged ten entries. Eight of them were about a Kate.” It’s like a Meg Ryan fest (ever notice how half of her characters are named Kate?)

    And I’ve really had enough of the unpronounceable, apostrophe-filled fantasy names. Where does that come from?

    There’s an alternate problem when the names are TOO boring, though. I noticed this with my GH entries. All the last names were so… Fisher, Stevens, Ryans, Allens… not EVERYONE has an English last name!

  37. bruno said:

    Holy Comments! Quite the mosh pit we’ve got going here. Regarding names, I don’t bother sticking too hard to any one name. As I write, the character eventually settles on one they prefer and I go back and change them to suit. Ditto, place names, etc. For myself, when I write epic fantasy, I try and rely on different cultures and different languages for inspiration. Try Arabic, Swahili, Japanese, Inuit. Some of them are an amazing source of words that you can use as roots for names. Even dead languages like old Saxon and Sanskrit are handy. It’s even more fun to link a name to a meaning reflected in the character or place. Kinda like a test to see who really gets into your writing.
    Anyway, my own pet peeve is reserved for authors who create fantasy world completely separate from our own who name their lead charcters “Richard” or “Thomas” or who take terms from popular films and slap them in like a bad paint job. (I’m talking to you, Terry.) My reaction is to sigh in exasperation (and…well…respond to blogs like this one). I mean, for heaven’s sake at least if you’re going to give someone a common name try and match up the meaning of the name to the character. Sigh. Ok, I’m done.

  38. Anonymous said:

    There is no vampire named Bob, I checked. But there was an entire PLANET called Bob in a movie called “Titan A.E.”

  39. Shanna Swendson said:

    Thanks to those who liked my book. I NEVER get tired of hearing that. 🙂

    I actually came to using the name “Katie” in a logical process. I wanted a name where the real version is a lot more sophisticated sounding while the nickname version sounds very girl-next-door. When I first started developing the character, I had it in mind that she was trying to become Kathleen after moving to New York, but people still kept calling her Katie and she kept forgetting to correct them or introduce herself as Kathleen. Once I started writing, though, and had her voice in my head, that went by the wayside because it didn’t sound like something she’d do. Now she’s always Katie unless she’s in trouble with her Mom. Then she’s Kathleen.

    Sam was always Sam, from day one.

    I’ve sworn to myself, though, that my next heroine will have a name that doesn’t end in -ie or -y. I keep coming up with those without realizing it, and it’s starting to bother me.

  40. Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said:

    A friend and I are exchanging dragon poems. I’m not sure why. He started it!

    So, it’s my turn to write one. I’m thinking Bob will work for the dragon’s name. It’s a good solid name with no apostrophes, weird sounds or funny letters.

  41. Anonymous said:

    My husband’s cousin’s kid — about eight now — goes to a large parochial school where she is the ONLY Mary there.
    If you want unusual names, try going back to the baby boom staples.
    Seen any Barbaras lately? Try Linda, Sharla, Robert. James, and so on.

  42. Anonymous said:

    My husband’s cousin’s kid — about eight now — goes to a large parochial school where she is the ONLY Mary there.
    If you want unusual names, try going back to the baby boom staples.
    Seen any Barbaras lately? Try Linda, Sharla, Robert. James, and so on.

  43. Kate said:

    Oh, so now when I go to write my quasi-fictional semi-memoir (working title A Dozen Or So Medium-sized Morsels; the pivotal scene involves an addiction to chocolate chip cookies) I’ll have to change my name?

    I think not.

  44. Elektra said:

    My parents accidentally chose one of the top ten baby names for the year when they named me–I have literally never been in a classroom without someone else with my name in it.

  45. Anonymous said:

    Well it ain’t quite Bob, but Charlaine Harris’ “Sookie Stackhouse” series has vamps named Bill & Eric 🙂


  46. Anonymous said:

    Because my real first name is bizarre and unusual, I tend to prefer the more basic names in life.

    I suppose if you have curly hair you want straight hair, or the other way around.

    Lady M

  47. Anonymous said:

    Question for those that get annoyed at “weird names” : What do you do when you read a book that involves people from another culture who don’t have names that might as be familiar to you? Would you put down a book if a character was named Ling, Anish, Keiichirou, Neeraja?

    I’m curious because I’m writing a science fiction novel that deliberately does not use western names.

  48. Elektra said:

    To the last commenter: I’d drop it in a heart beat. There are non-Western names which are still easy enough to pronounce. The second I have to read a name five or six times, I’m pulled out of the book.

  49. Bernita said:

    Don’t think it’s the pronounceable factor so much as the visual quality – if the names LOOK as if they are easily verbal – not too many consonants close together and no names that resemble each other. No “Tagana’s” and “Tachera’s.

  50. Sarah said:

    Oooh, guilty. I have a really horrendously named character in my science fiction novel. But then, I’ve also made it sort of an in-joke by having characters react with, “Excuse me?” and “Spell it” when she states her name. I tried to make everyone else really normal to balance this out, though.

  51. Noble M Standing said:

    I love baby name books they are my staple for ideas.

    I have to laugh about the name Bob. I was frusrtatred with a crit group that wanted me to tell the whole story in the first page. So I wrote a “poem” of sorts called “The Story About Bob.” It was hilarious.