• Ejuen Armstrong

Choosing Your Characters’ Names

Thinking up a name for your characters can be fraught with challenges


Hands up—I'm not good with names. I really suck at it. I tend to go with whatever my eye falls on. Or half falls on. To me Sup Volvi sounds equally as enticing as Insert Mailings or Page 5 of 5.

Some people go to town and use made up names; some stick to their grandmother's middle name, or a Latin name for a flower.


It's become such an industry that people get a bit too creative and start wanting to copyright the names they've chosen. But what if you want to use a copyrighted name? How do you choose your characters names? How do we handle the dilemma of choosing the 'right' name for a character?


Let's have a look at what could happen.


Copyrighted Names


Well, in most English-speaking countries names cannot be copyrighted, so there's no breach. Otherwise we'd all be in the law courts, fighting the multi-duplicated victims of parents under the Lack of Imagination in Birthright Act. So what would happen to you in using a copyrighted name is...nada. Nothing.


I've actually seen a book online where the writer explicitly stated that every single name in their debut novel was copyrighted. Anyone caught using the same names would be would be pursued legally with full intent. This writer would be surprised to know that those names could be used by anyone with impunity in their own work. Unless of course she'd managed to trademark all her characters' names.


Morgan Freeman the plumber is free to trademark his name too; as long as it doesn't impede on Morgan Freeman the actor.


Trademarking a Name


In certain countries you can trademark a name, but it's got to be commercially linked to a specific and recognisable service that might cost you money if people tried to use it for the same industry.


Which means you cannot use a name that is already being used to identify a business or service. So setting up a company in the garden shed that sells a dark brown fizzy drink called Coca-Cola is going to be a short-lived enterprise. For example, Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman trademarked his name to prevent it being exploited and used by others to sell their products. Freeman's trademark is listed in the category "Entertainment services, namely, live, televised and movie appearances by a professional entertainer." But Morgan Freeman the plumber is free to trademark his name too; as long as it doesn't impede on Morgan Freeman the actor.


Some people like to have a hero/ine whose name also conveys some element of their character. Johnny Gunslinger or Gentle Jim.

Celebrity Names


In both the UK and the USA, it's a guild rule that actors cannot have the same name; which is why some will insert a letter or have a different first name. For example Michael Douglas changed his birth surname to Keaton so as not to be confused with the pre-existing actor called Michael Douglas. Which makes you think how ironic it must be to have to change your birth name because someone had changed their original birth name to yours so that they wouldn't clash with someone else. It's the never ending hall of mirrors.


The Carters—that's Beyonce and Jay-Z—did attempt to trademark their daughter's name, Blue Ivy. This failed because there was already a wedding planning business with the same name and the strong possibility that the products that the Carters were planning brand were already on the wedding planner's inventory, especially child related products. So even money power and influence can't bring that kind of special treatment.


Some people like to have a hero/ine whose name also conveys some element of their character. Johnny Gunslinger or Gentle Jim. I don’t think it matters as much as just his character in the main. Is he gentle? Then you the writer can show that in his mannerisms, speech and behaviour. Unless of course you're dealing with a secret torturer or serial killer, then no amount of safe description is going to help.


Choose a name you're happy with in your head and in your heart.

Going for the J's


Another thing is, names in books are like the starring roles in blockbuster movies. Before I actually tried to write seriously my motto was this: If you struggle with names for males, go with the Js. Every time. I mean look at the example I subconsciously chose above and only just realising. Even now, off the top of my head I'm thinking of names, and the Js keep rolling on. Granted it’s a stream of consciousness list. Perhaps because my own name also begins with J: there's a bit of the narcissist in all of us. Nevertheless, here we go:


Jesus, John the Baptist, Jackie Chan, John Travolta, Jehovah, Jah Rastafari, JF Kennedy, Joshua the Disciple, Johnny, um...mera nam, James T. Kirk, Jamie Foxx, Jake Gylenhaal, Jennifer Aniston, J-Lo, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jasper Carrott, almost any of The Jacksons, Jeremiah the bullfrog, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, Julia Roberts, Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, John Malkovich, John Q, John... Quixote? JayZ, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Johnny Depp, Joe Louis, Jason and the Argonauts, Joan of Arc, Jack the R—okay maybe not him, James and the Giant Peach, Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, Jack Black, Jim Balaya (ok, that last one's just checking that you're still paying attention...)


Once you've weaned yourself off the Js and on to other names, keep them simple. Don’t fall into the trap that I almost did, thinking it would be easy. Names should make sense to the plot, the character, the storyline. Sometimes they make it easy, they'll come to you and you know they're the one. I'm guessing that you are not going to find Ediths and Herberts as the most common names on a spaceship crew 200 years in the future.


Ultimately, choose a name you're happy with in your head and in your heart. That's the one that will match your characters, they'll work around it with relief that you haven't chosen Error 404.

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