A character by any other name is not as sweet

Are you one of those writers who actively model characters on real people? Come on, admit it! You’ve probably endowed one or more of your protagonists with the traits of some real live hero you’ve met or read about. It could be a personal hero, like your grandpa, grandma, dad, mom, or a favorite uncle or aunt, or even an admired teacher or the school’s hottest athlete or cheerleader. You’ve also probably imbued some of your antagonists with the traits of your annoying kid sibling or cousin, a school bully, or your parents at their worst moments. As a fiction writer, you need to protect the identities of your models, whether positive or negative. Here are some ways you can do that.

1. Use a baby name book. There are all kinds of baby name books, from traditional baby names like Robert, William, Mary, and Anne, to unorthodox baby names like Rainbow, Amber, Opal, and Strawberry.
2. Use first names of famous people and mix up their surnames, like Hillary Regan or Scrooge McTrump.
3. Use foreign names like Liam, Cohen, Vladimir, or Rajesh.
4. Use a phone book and pick random surnames to match your invented first names.
5. Use names of real people you know, but don’t use their names on the characters they’re like. That way, people can’t say, “Hey, that’s what’s-his/her-name!” Throw them off by using their names on characters totally unlike them.
6. Change their gender. If there’s a guy you really hate, turn him into a despicable female character.
7. Change their age. You can safely make a character younger or older than the model by up to 10 years. The older your model, the easier to change the age. On the other hand, you could also turn them all into kids, which shouldn’t be too hard if they’re really very childish in real life.
8. Change their professions. Put them in a profession or job that’s very different from what they do in real life.
9. Invent new names with new spellings, depending on their age in your story. Take your cues from real life. For instance, Chyna, Asya, Justynne, Cayden.
10. Look up the most popular names for a particular year to match the year your character was born.
11. Use symbolic or meaningful names, for instance, Frank, Chastity, Hope, Gallant, Rush. Is the name “Scout Finch” symbolic? Or Robinson Crusoe?
12. Unless you are writing about life in earlier centuries or an alternative futuristic society where names are assigned as a way to identify social or economic status or an allegorical story, you might want to avoid using surnames that identify profession–unless it’s a fictional historical name attached to a family that carries on the same profession. Unfortunately, that could run really close to being tacky, campy, forced, or tongue-in-cheek, so be very careful or be very convincing.
13. Of course, if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, there’s no limit to the kinds of names you can invent. And if you need to use numbers to name your characters–if that’s what your story really is about–go for it.

How you name your characters is as important as how children are names. You need to consider: will your characters live up to their names? Will the names become as memorable as Jay Gatsby or Sherlock Holmes or Scarlet O’Hara? Do the names suggest anything about the characters? If the characters were real, how would they feel about their names? Remember, your characters are your babies. Name them well!

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