Debate Magazine

The Write Stuff – Character Names, Titles, and the Look of Your Page

By Eowyn @DrEowyn

The Write Stuff

For reasons that I’ve never been able to fathom, many writers love to give their characters unusual or ridiculous sounding names. Writers who do this think they’re being cute. To me, it’s just plain stupid. It’s as if they think the character’s name will signify the personality traits they are unable to communicate through action and dialog.

Seriously, how many people in your life do you know who are named Maverick, Anastasia, Tyler, Dirk, Gordy, Mercedes, Montana, Travis, Cody, Gordon, etc.? Whenever I encounter one of these names in a book, I’m immediately taken out of the story and reminded that the author is trying to be cute. Don’t do that to your readers. Give your readers interesting, but realistic names. (My apologies to anyone who actually has one of these names. They’re fine names, and I do know a girl named Montana, but they sound phony when they appear in a story or novel.)

Your characters’ names should be suited to their type. Hank, Butch, and Biff are not the best names for a cerebral character, in the same way that Sidney, Eugene, or Eggbert sound awkward for an action hero.

Begin each of your characters’ names with a different letter and sound. Don’t have Jane and John, or Betty and Bob, in the same story. It’s confusing to your readers. Make each character’s name distinct.

Keep your character names consistent throughout the book. I’m reading a novel now with a lead character named Augustus, and the author spends half of his time calling him Augustus and the other half calling him Gus. Again, it’s very confusing.

Even more important than the names of your characters is the title of your book. Titles can make or break a book, and are often the only reason a potential reader will pull a book off a shelf. Did you see last year’s Academy Awards? One of the reasons viewership was so low was because of the titles of the nominated films. Whiplash: It sounds like a movie about a car accident. Birdman: Sounds like a lame superhero I’ve never heard of or a remake of The Birdman of Alcatraz. Selma: The title was as boring as the movie. Selma, Alabama would have been better.

Your title should accomplish two things. First, it should invoke a sense of curiosity in the reader, and second, it should convey a sense of the book’s tone. A mystery title should convey a sense of mystery. The Maltese Falcon is a good example. Falcons are mysterious by nature and suggest a predatory bird. The word “Maltese” adds to the mystery. Another good example is the title Jagged Edge. It not only conveys mystery, but also a sense of danger. Fatal Attraction is a lousy movie, but a wonderful title for the type of movie it is. The same with Dangerous Liasons.

If your novel is a comedy, then insert some humor in your title. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a whimsical title, perfect for a comedy, and it creates curiosity. It’s a rare case where using a cute character name works.

If your novel features a strong central character, then that character’s name can make a suitable title: Rocky, Hud, Johnny Tremain, Tarzan, Elmer Gantry, etc.

I know from personal experience how important titles can be. I once wrote a mediocre script with a terrific title. The movie never got made, but I optioned the script half-a-dozen times based almost entirely on the strength of the title.

The best way to pick your book’s title is to make a list of fifty or more possibilities, whittle it down to about twenty choices, then ask others which title they most prefer. Ordinarily, it’s not a good idea to take writing advice from your friends and acquaintances, but with titles the public is generally right.

Have you ever opened a book or article to find a series of long, unbroken paragraphs? I don’t know about you, but just looking at a page like that makes me tired. That kind of writing is an insult to your readers and a major reason why so few Americans read books. You can remedy that by writing short paragraphs with lots of dialog and lots of white space on the page. Readers tend to skim or skip long paragraphs. They NEVER skip dialog.

How are you coming along with your novel?

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