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Write a Kid's Book in 14 Days
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Write Children's Books


What's In a Name?
Harry Potter, Huckleberry Finn and, er… Hubert Gribble
by Jill McDougall

Remember that dashing manly hero in Gone with the Wind? What was his name again?

Of course – Rhett Butler. How could anyone forget? But what if Margaret Mitchell had named her handsome hero something entirely different - Percy Sprong for example. Or Hubert Gribble?

Would you still feel the same way about him?

And what if Scarlett O’Hara had been Enid Snirke or Maisie Brittlebanger?

Names convey rhythm and flavour and shape. They evoke memories and awaken our senses. They roll round our tongue a certain way. Names affect how the reader responds to a character.

Here are important points you need to consider when choosing characters’ names:

Don’t confuse your reader

When I was seven, I was given a book that featured twin sisters. The good sensible twin was called Molly. The naughty one was Polly. Or was it the other way round? I could never remember which twin was which because keeping track of them was a mental chore. I have no idea what happened to Molly and Polly because I never made it past chapter one.

Rhyming names are a problem because they look and sound too similar. Names with the same beginning letter (Penny, Mr Poulson, Dr Paul) pose a similar problem. So do names with similar endings (Cassie, Bonnie, Flossie.)

Don’t forget that the reader hasn’t lived with these characters as long as you have and any techniques you use to aid character identification will be appreciated.

Keep it simple

If you choose names that are difficult to pronounce, you create distance between reader and character. If you are convinced that Phiponoughlier is the only possible name for your mad scientist, then introduce the name once and then provide a nickname: “Please call me Phip.”

Reflect the culture

Most Western societies are multi-cultural. Add authenticity and an inclusive feel to your work, by reflecting this cultural diversity in your characters’ names. Educational publishers, in particular, will look kindly upon the inclusion of a range of characters with names that are easy to pronounce.

The website has lists of baby names by category including nationality.

Fun with names

Science fiction and fantasy writers can have a lot of fun with character’s names. When creating a whole new world, you want your names to sound different from mere earthly humanoids, but not too different.

Some writers select common names and then change a single letter to create something new. For example:

David becomes Dafid

Amelia becomes Amelira

Names can also reflect the characteristics of an entire race. A preponderance of vowels in a name suggests an ethereal quality and would suit fairies or elves. Try taking a common name of three syllables and swapping some of the consonants for vowels. Thus:

Samantha becomes Eamantia

Jeremy becomes Aeriemy

On the other hand, names with extra consonants sound heavier. Metallic robotic creatures may have a number of hard consonants in their names such as Broddon or Robard.

Add power to your picture book

Names in picture books should be chosen with special care since each precious word must convey tone and atmosphere. For example, the name Digby evokes the slow rumbling movements of a heavy creature. Just perfect for a wombat.

On the other hand, Mirette evokes a certain lightness and agility. Just right for an acrobat.

Jane Covernton , the editor at Working Title Press, suggests that if you can’t possibly change your character’s name, then it’s probably the right one.

Make your characters’ memorable

Who can forget that Professor Sprout teaches Herbology at Hogwart’s School or that Moaning Myrtle is a ghost?

And remember Mr Plod the policeman in the Noddy books?

The names of marginal characters are just as important as that of the prima donna who hogs centre stage. In fact, you can be a little sillier and more creative in naming your bit part characters. An appropriate name helps your reader remember who is who, especially if these peripheral characters flit in and out of your story.

One trick is to make a list of the personality traits of your character. If that wacky teacher is the nervous type, write down all the words that characterise this behaviour. Your list might include: fidgety, flustered, twitchy, jittery, jumpy.

Then play around with these words to come up with colourful combinations …
Titch E Finglet perhaps, or Fidge Jigglebottom.

Roald Dahl had a lot of fun choosing appropriate names for his secondary characters. Augustus Gloop is a particularly gluttonous child, Aunt Spiker is mean and vindictive and Headmistress Trunchbull rampages through the school creating havoc.

Choose names to create a catchy title

I once changed a character’s name from Jenna to Jess so that I could call my story Don’t Mess with Jess and my short story Smart Alec began with the title.

Catchy titles sell books and character’s names can be chosen to give your title that extra edge. You can have a lot of fun coming up with good title/name combinations.

So … what’s in a name?

Next time you are considering naming your dashing hero Claude Clodwamble or your prissy school teacher Madam Slambunger, remember the familiar Shakespearian question, “What’s in a name?’

The answer? Plenty.

Jill McDougall 2007


Jill is the author of over a hundred books for children. You can visit her website ( to find more writing tips.


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