The Name Grid
I have an author friend who wrote a book, and then discovered that every character’s name started with a “J”. When she told me about that, I came up with this simple grid.
This is a table with 8 rows and 3 columns. The first cell contains the name of the book. Then there is a cell for each letter of the alphabet up to the letter “W” and then one cell for “XYZ”.
As I come up with a character’s names (first and last) I put them in the appropriate cell. “Toria Whitney” goes in “T” and “Whitney, Toria” goes in “W”.
In this example, I have also colour-coded relationships. Toria’s family is Pink. Ryder’s family is Blue. I use Orange and Green for some other relationships. It helps me to keep everyone organized. With a quick glance at the Name Grid, I make sure that I am varying names, and I’m not putting Peter, Paul, Patty, Priscilla, Perkins and Penelope all in the same book.
Besides starting names with the same letter, be careful of ending them with the same letter.
Suzy, Mandy, Daisy and Kelly will be cumbersome.
At the bottom of the Name Grid, you might like to list the names of places or things or minor characters in your story. For example, in ON THE WAY TO A WEDDING I listed the name of my fictional hospital, Nose Hill Hospital.
In Real Life Calgary, there isn’t a Nose Hill Hospital, but there is a Foothills Hospital. And there really is a Nose Hill Park. Because I have trouble remembering if I decided on Nosehills or Nosehill or Nose Hill, I recorded the spelling here.
If I give the coffeemaker a name, like the BrewWell Unit in Catherine’s office, I put it here.
ON THE WAY TO A WEDDING has several fictional street names so I listed them for quick reference: Collins Street, Dottridge Ave, Stelmack Boulevard and Wickens Street. By the way, these are the surnames of some of my author friends.
This goes without saying. Your character names may have different spellings but naturally you will decide on one. In ON THE WAY TO A WEDDING, several scenes take place at a Real Life coffee shop called Tim Hortons. Occasionally I have seen this written as Tim Horton’s (with an apostrophe). It’s important to pick one spelling and stick with it.
Character Name File
Whenever you happen on a name that might be a good character name, put it in this file. Then when you start a new book you won’t need to spend so long searching for the perfect names.
Names Used File
Keep another file of names you have already used. You don’t want to be always calling your hero, Ryder and your heroine, Toria.
A different number of syllables for the first and last names sounds best. You want Chris to pher Green, not Joe Blow. Joseph Blow might work. But then again, Joe Blow might work if you want a drab name for a drab character.
Hero and Heroine
How do their names sound together? Are they lyrical? And if they marry and she changes her name, will it work? This is a romance, after all.
One way to differentiate between characters is to have one character say “Victoria” and another say “Toria” and still another say “Miss Whitney”.
Do not make your reader have to think. When he sees Jordan, does he think of a man or a woman? This is not so important if your lead romance characters are Jordan and Mirabelle. Or if they are Mike and Jordan. But do not make the two lead characters be Taylor and Jordan.
You may think Wynsleighe is a lovely name, but how do you say it? Is your reader going to trip over the pronunciation every time she sees it?
You want your reader to be in the story and you do not want your reader to pop out even for a second to wonder about gender or pronunciation.
Ethel can appear in the 1911s but not today, unless she is very old. A quick search of popular names by year will solve that.
I have used Mrs. Jones. Fortunately I didn’t need to talk about Mrs. Jones’ purse, or even Mrs. Jones’s purse. But it’s best to avoid the whole problem and have “non-S” endings.
Think about your plurals. Think about John Crowfoot and his wife, Jill, and all their little children. What happens when the Crowfoots all come for a visit? Are they Crowfeet now?
As a reader, have you ever come across character names that tossed you out of a story?
As a writer, do you have a system for choosing names?
What an excellent idea to keep track of character names! My first novel had three main characters with ‘M’ names plus a Belle and a Bella. It happens so easily when you’re just concentrating on getting the story written. Thanks for this wonderful tool for authors.
That’s funny, Brenda 🙂
At any rate, the Most Important work is getting the story written, and you are Prolific!
I agree – this is an excellent way to keep track of names and added suggestions that would be very helpful in names. Thanks Suzanne.
Thanks, Mary. I’m always looking for tricks to simplify things. If only I could figure out how to write faster . . .
A timely post! Have just read a book where the ‘good’ characther’s surname was Chase, as was the historical ‘bad’ character. It confused the heck out of me and I firmly believed all would be explained in the end – but it wasn’t. I’m not the most organized writer but this is one scheme that I know will work for me. Great idea Suzanne.
Thank you, Vicki. It’s just a simple table, but sometimes the best ideas are the simple ones, right?
The grid is an excellent idea. I’m going to have to try it.
Let me know how it works for you!
My system is pretty simple. If I need a character in a scene, I type something like VOLCANO GODDESS or NAME OF MAN. Then, after I’m done writing, I hunt down a name. Since it’s a fantasy/contemporary/alternate world, I use Latin names. The Character Naming Sourcebook gets me the first name, and a genealogy site gets me the last. I use the genealogy site for place names, since most places are named after people. If I can’t remember the name, I scroll back to the last place where I used it and see what it is. If I don’t have access to the rest of the book, like today, I just type the first letter, and I’ll go look it up later.
Volcano Goddess! I love it.
I need to know my character names while I am writing – that’s just me. But I do use that trick of putting in TK when I have to look up something and want to keep the writing flow going. I think the “TK” stands for “to come” but I don’t know why it’s always written as TK and not TC.
Hmm, maybe TC means Telephone Call. 🙂
I’ve seen TK — think it’s something that comes from journalism. I have to put something a little more specific, or I might not remember what I was thinking at the time.
Ha, fun. There’s such a lot to keep track of, isn’t there? Writing fantasy, I tend to have many place names, curse words, and other made up words to keep track of as well!!
And the whole ending names with ‘s’ does my head in…
Keeping track of curse words! What a writer must do. Imagine a whole grid of curse words. 🙂
Love the chart, Suzanne! I really need something like this to keep them straight. What a great idea. And listing other things like places, etc.. Thanks for sharing!
I’m glad you like it, Marian. It’s just a simple table that STARTED OFF as a way to keep track of character names. Now with these comments, I’m learning it has more applications.
Great post, Suzanne! For the recent Frost Family series that I was involved in, I listed the aphabet and used it to select names in the hopes of maintaining some varietyacross our three books – but I didn’t think of using a double entry system like yours to cover both the first and last names. Smart girl!
BTW, The use of TK was simply an uncommon letter combination in the English language but, in editing, it’s preferred if we use *** or &&& so that we can be certain, it won’t show up anywhere else in the text.
Who knew? I will probably continue to just use “TK” because it comes out of my fingers at those times when it is needed. Thanks for the interesting editing info!
There are many excellent suggestions in this article that every writer should keep in mind.
Thank you, Sherile. I keep adding to my list. It’s a good reminder for me. 🙂
Suzanne, a great piece on character names. I do use an Excel grid for mine but I think I like your chart better. And adding the names of locations is excellent. I have a fictional community so they are all “new” so to speak and appear in three books. Keeping track is critical. I did run into an issue with Caleb’s Cove or Caleb Cove.. book one published and book2 half written when I realized it. I solved it by having the map say Caleb Cove (the error of the fiitonal map maker) and the locals refer to it as Caleb’s Cove. It evoled into a story line andiIn book three the legend behind the name will be revealed.
Ah, the old “Tim Hortons” vs. “Tim Horton’s” problem. Your solution to the “Caleb Cove” vs. “Caleb’s Cove” sounds great, especially since you can weave it into Book 3.
My only trick is to figure out what year the character was born, then look at the list of most popular names for that year. I may not choose something in the top ten, but at least I feel like then name is appropriate to the time the story is set. I love your chart idea, though, especially for listing street names and other incidentals that I tend to forget – and then have to hunt for.
Good idea – choosing the popular names for a year. I know I could use the internet, but I like using physical baby name books. I think I need to buy some current ones!