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My Favorite Character Names

November 12, 2012

As a senior in high school I was required to read “The Fires of Spring” by James Michener. I loved it. The book follows the life of a young boy growing up in a poorhouse until he reaches adulthood. His name: David Harper.

Not the type of name that flows deliciously off the tongue when you say it aloud, but Michener, one of the most prolific and accomplished American authors of the 20th Century, had his reasons for using the name, common as it is.

Naming characters is one of the toughest aspects of novel writing. The names have to be memorable without straining too hard to be so. In a sense they have to be poetic, just the right number of syllables and hard consonants to make them stick in the readers’ minds.

While writing “The Champagne Ladies,” which takes place in a Chicago neighborhood with a large Eastern European population, I had to give my characters names that would be Polish, German and Bohemian, yet easy to pronounce when readers said them aloud: Claudine Dabec, Ludmilla Kozak, Emil Podlowski, Chester Dvorack, Ken and Mark Habenhoff–all reveal the characters’ ethnicity but readers don’t have to perform linguistic acrobatics to say them.

Readers demand authentic names, true to a character’s personality, ethnicity and station in life. If you’re writing about a man who was raised in poverty you can’t get away with naming him Oliver Smithfield Banks III. Readers won’t buy it. And if you name someone Bubba, you had better be writing about a football player or a redneck.

Some of my favorite character names, the book they appear in, and the author:

Alec Behl, “Echo House” (Ward Just)

Oswald Hendryks Cornelius, “My Uncle Oswald” (Roald Dahl)

Ignatius Reilly, “A Confederacy of Dunces” (John Kennedy Toole)

Malachi Constant, “The Sirens of Titan” (Kurt Vonnegut)

Kilgore Trout, Mentioned in several novels (Vonnegut again)

Alec Leamas, “The Spy Who Came in From The Cold” (John LeCarre)

Maurice Bendrix, “The End of the Affair” (Graham Greene)

Prince Myshkin, “The Idiot” (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

By far, though, the character names that sound the best come from William Faulkner: Boon Hogganbeck, Flem Snopes, Orestes Snopes, Gavin Stevens, Bilbo Gowrie, Ike McCaslin, Eustace Graham.

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