Picking names for your characters - a Rose by any other name would NOT smell as sweet

In my most recent FridayFlash, "Phil's Christmas Present", a few things changed in the various drafts as I was writing it.

One thing that changed was the names. Picking names for your characters is always hard, so I wanted to talk about this as an entry on the mechanics of writing.

As Olivia Tejeda pointed out in her excellent comment, I accidentally left a bit of an early draft in the final. Originally, the narrator was unnamed, but I decided to call him Phil. The wife started as Helen, but ended up as Ellen. The daughter began as Carolyn, but became Caroline.

What's the difference?

I wanted to give a bit of a blue-collar feel to this. The narrator's profanity in his internal monolgue did that to a certain extent. What about the wife and child? Somehow, for this setting and place, Ellen strikes me as more appropriate than Helen. It's a more common, more down-to-earth name, quite fitting for a wise woman.

And why change the spelling of the daughter's name? It also changes the pronunciation from KAH-roh-len to KAH-roh-lyen. Again, it is in keeping with the common man theme.

What do you think? Changing a character from Charles to Charlie, Chuck or Chuckie is pretty obvious. See also Elizabeth vs. Beth, Lizzy, Betsy, Bitsy, etc. But is it worth changing a character's name from Helen to Ellen, or from Carolyn to Caroline?

I think so.


  1. Very much so. People are very judgemental and most the time they don't even realise why they have made a judgement. People see the name Helen they instantly draw one set of assumptions, Ellen has a completely different set of assumptions.
    Interesting post.

  2. Cassandra: Interesting post.
    Thanks! There's a subtext that you create with the details. Lazy writing is really overt about it ("She checked her Rolex, then tossed her Fendi bag onto the passenger seat of her Porsche. It always amused her that the seats and the bag were made of identical leather.")

    Working a scene without being overt is harder, but I think it's worth it to hit a high quality mark.

  3. I agree completely on how important character names can be, but I've gone the opposite direction. I'm in the habit now of using the names Fred and Ginger for my main characters in all my early drafts and into the posts on my blog. I don't worry about coming up with their "real" names until I decide to market a piece elsewhere. That lets me pay more attention to the scene and the action. Appropriate names seem to come more easily at the end of the process rather than the beginning.

  4. Tim: This is an interesting approach. Since I see these FridayFlash pieces as writing exercises, I'm not really planning on marketing them anywhere. I'm looking to have them be complete by themselves.

    I'd be concerned about the use of stand-in names becoming a distraction from the various pieces. One week Fred and Ginger are a horny teenage girl and her almost-lover, next week Fred and Ginger are a mercenary thug and his bitch, and then Fred and Ginger are two college freshmen.

    Are you concerned about carry-over confusion?

  5. My Friday flashes are just writing exercises too, but occasionally I like one well enough to develop it further and look for a market.

    There has been some confusion from readers expecting these to be recurring characters. And the fact that nearly everyone envisions Astaire and Rogers when they see the names Fred and Ginger has been a bit distracting. I added a page that explains that these are my John and Jane Doe characters and I link to it now every time I use those names.

    I know this won't end the confusion, especially for casual readers. But since these are writing exercises after all, it lets me continue to focus on the aspects I want to with a [mostly] clear conscience.

  6. I guess whatever approach works for you is the one to use.

    When I envision my characters, I always name them. It helps me to cement someone when I can call her Allyson or Dakota or Mary, or call him Bill or Sasha or Norman.


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