Writing Right with Dmitri: How to Avoid Giving Your Characters Porn Names
This column was written by request. You don't like it, you can take things up with Tavaron.
You're writing a fiction story. You need a character. You want the character to have a cool, suggestive name.
You probably need Research. If you don't want to do any Research, ever, then please stop reading my column, which is not aimed at lazy writers. The rest of us will now go on.
Laziest Way to Find a Character Name
Look here. Warning: I used this name generator to find a name for a Romanian princess of poetic bent. They suggested Emilia Emerson. Seriously. Name generators are mostly useful for party games. Move on.
Playing It Safe, Old Style
- For the Good Guy, make up a name that definitely sounds Anglo-Saxon to say, an immigrant from Eastern Europe (who is probably writing the story, and may be reading it). If he's a lower-echelon detective from the working class, make the name Irish.
- Give yourself double points for making the name short – say, single syllables for both first and last names – and 'strong-sounding', like 'Mike Hammer'.
- Give the Bad Guy a name that sounds foreign. Ending the name in 'o' , 'i', or 'a' helps with that. Like 'Alfonse Ricardo' or 'Mario Linguini'.
- Give the Girl a melodious name that is slightly unusual and evokes sensuality, such as Muriel Champagne.
- Give the Girl's silly girlfriend or the detective's chatty secretary a mildly funny name, such as Hortense Pebblewaite.
You never would have taken Jim Carranaugh for a detective. He was
too obvious. Entirely too big. Too big by a number of inches, both ways.
'The Man Who Was Seven', J Frederic Thorne, Black Mask, August, 1920
Not to mention his name being too obvious. Raymond Chandler's Black Mask gumshoe was named Carmody. He reappeared as the classier-named Philip Marlowe in the novels. Of course, if the detective is English, he or she should have a title, or maybe a hyphen. Lord Peter Wimsey, anyone?
Old-style books, whether detective stories or not, tended to give characters names that 'clued the reader in' as to whether they should like/admire/distrust/feel superior to the character. The names are often far-from-subtle hints at racism/ethnocentricity/classism/homophobia, etc. With this legacy, we might do well to try to avoid these sins in our nomenclature.
Classing It Up with Character Names
One trap for the unwary writer is to give characters names we have always secretly admired. Back when we were all about 13 and engaged in live-action roleplay fanfic of our favourite TV shows, a friend of mine airily named her character, a glamorous secret agent, Ursula Baines-Nieforth. It wasn't her fault: her mother, a schoolteacher, spent her Saturdays in Carnegie Library trying to prove she was descended from William the Conqueror. That sort of bad attitude rubs off, parents.
A tip for writers: know your audience. Know what they'll put up with in character names, and what they won't. A savvy postmodern readership will find names from Black Mask redolent of parody. However, a 1960s fan of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would think Ursula Baines-Nieforth sounded cool. They might expect her to be played in a guest appearance by the glamorous Diana Rigg. Let's face it: any adult who took The Man from U.N.C.L.E. seriously would probably buy anything. Our excuse is that we were in seventh grade and hadn't been introduced to postmodern theory. Which hadn't really been invented yet.
Avoiding Character Name Faux Pas
- Make sure you understand the language you'll be read in. 'Pussy Galore' is a character in a James Bond movie. The name is intentionally rude. The Broccoli Brothers should be ashamed1. Try to avoid doing things like that by accident. Americans: Don't call your action hero Will T***er2. British people might read your book3.
- This is particularly important when your characters are foreign. If possible, run character names by a native speaker. They may not mean what your dictionary implied they did. The name might be the equivalent of 'John Smith' in Ancient Sumerian. Or it might be a joke name or insult, like 'Moishe Pipik4'. Remember Joe Magarac, the Pittsburgh folk hero? 'Magarac' is Croatian for 'donkey', and the folklorist didn't catch on.
- If your character has a name that is funny in a foreign language, you can use that for a laugh if you can work it in. Common Amish surnames in America include, for example, Hübschmann, which could be funny if you're writing in German. The English equivalent would be Prettyman.
- WARNING: Even if you think you've come up with the perfect character name, please use Google to see if you haven't just, completely by accident, duplicated the name of a famous character in a novel you haven't read, a film you've never heard of, or even worse, a real person in another country who might think you were talking about him/her. This happened to your Editor on this very site. In an effort to avoid using the actual name of a real person, I plucked one from the ether. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. Another h2g2 Researcher who shall remain nameless then accused me of deliberately taking this name from a friend of a famous writer. I had never heard of this friend and was unaware of anybody with that name. I became so offended by this Researcher's vehement expressions of outrage that I removed my short story from the site. I'm still miffed about it, because I thought the story was pretty good, and changing a name is a matter of find-and-replace.
- Re: Googling. The previous warning goes double if money is involved and there are copyright issues.
- Re-using names: You can do it if you're prepared for the name to come with baggage. Name your character 'John Cleese'. Have him go through life being asked to repeat the Parrot Sketch.
Don't Use Porn Names Unless You Mean Them
Millennials often have running gags about 'porn names'. Of course there are name generators online, but we don't recommend them: dodgy websites are bad for your computer. Suffice it to say that unless you're going for a cheap joke (or actually writing porn), you probably shouldn't call your hero Rock Hardesty or your heroine Candy Kaine.
Rule of Thumb
Try to give your characters names they and the reader can live with. Names that fit the place and time of their origin. You wouldn't want to name your character Tiffany if she lived in Regency England, now would you? I have some short stories scattered around this site about a character named Robert Thigpen. Robert is a native of North Carolina, which is one of the few places in the world where Thigpen isn't an odd name. Robert's comfortable with his family name, but his first names are William Robert. He has threatened the author with bodily harm should he be referred to as 'Billy Bob'. That's a class thing.
Any more naming tips you'd like to share? Let us know!