Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Character Names: Have You Heard This One?

"Always end the name of your child with a vowel, so that when you yell the name will carry."
                                                                                                                                 --Bill Cosby

I recently came across the following statement in a book on novel writing. I'd never heard this "rule" before. Have you? 

"Choose names with long vowel sounds for principal characters, shorter for lesser."

No discussion of why followed. And since I'd never heard this before (and with apologies to the author for not accepting the idea at face value), I decided to put the theory to the test by conducting an informal poll on main character names. I took the names from books I have on my shelf, particularly classics and Newbery award winning authors since they've stood the test of time. Here's my list:

                         Long                                                                            Short
Jo, Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)                                             Scarlett, Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
Mary, The Secret Garden (Frances H. Burnett)                    Meg, A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle)
Andi, Revolution (Jennifer Donelly)                                           Anne, Anne of Green Gables (Luci Maud Montgomery)   
Tilly, The River Between Us (Richard Peck)                        Miranda, When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead)
Zola, The Unfinished Angel (Sharon Creech)                       Jess, Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson)
Abilene, Moon Over Manifest (Clare Vanderpool)             Mibs, Savvy (Ingrid Law)
Jethro, Across Five Aprils (Irene Hunt)                                    Kit, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth George Spears)

As you can see, the results ended in a tie.

After this, I went back and checked the last names on the short-vowel list, and found that four of  the seven carried long-vowel sounds, three short. Not quite a tie there, but close.

So I asked myself, do vowel sounds carry that much weight? Or are there other considerations for choosing character names?

Actually there are. One of the best ways is get to know the characters--their personalities, quirks, and backgrounds. This way, the "ear" will be more open to the name that fits. Not only that, but names should be chosen with an ear to historical and cultural accuracy. Also, ideas for names can come from a variety of sources, like baby name books, lists of names popular to an era, movie and tv credits, business directories, old yearbooks, phone books--sometimes even cemeteries. For some writers, the name's meaning is important, for others it is simply a matter of what "feels" right. Yes, it boils down to how a name sounds, but not only because of long or short vowels.

And, unlike Bill Cosby's reason for choosing a child's name ending in a vowel, if we utilize other resources, we'll have no reason to yell. The name will carry itself.

At least that's what I think. What do you think?

p.s. for some good guidelines (not rules!) to aid in choosing character names, you might want to check out these sources:
How To Give Your Character the Perfect Name, Writer's Digest
Name That Character, Top Ten Tips, The Script Lab
Tips for Writers on Naming Fictional Characters, Baby Names
Eight Things to Keep in Mind When Naming Characters, Jody Hedlund
Name That Character, Writing World

*photo courtesy of


  1. How strange! I have never heard that. I agree that names should be historically and culturally accurate, but that's as far as I take it. I know some people search for names with meanings that are appropriate to their character's traits, but I don't do that. After all, my parents threw me a middle name that means "industrious". More fool them!

  2. Fascinating post, Kenda! I'm definitely bookmarking it. I'd love to use this as a guest post, if you're interested. Such great resources!


  3. This is very interesting. I've never heard of this rule. I've found that once I get to know a character better -- especially the main one that the original name no longer "fits." I've had to change my character's name because of this.

    Thanks for the links! :)

  4. I've never heard this either; it is interesting. I agree with you. The name can carry itself.

    Have a great weekend! :)

  5. This is an interesting post from my point of view because I think names are REALLY important. To be honest, I don't care much about the vowel sound. (After all, many of us have names with short vowel sounds and yet we are all the "stars" of our own lives, are we not?) I do agonize over names, though, trying various characters' names out to see how they sound together. Names give me a feeling - strong, prissy, whatever - and that's what I go by.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for stopping in!

    Jen--I thought this was strange, too. I guess that's why I needed to explore the idea a little bit :-)

    Debbie--Thanks for the encouragement, and yes, I'd love to have you use this for a guest post. I'll email you...

    Karen S--Me, too. I always "try" on a number of names before I find one that fits. I guess it's part of getting to know my character.

    Karen L--Isn't it interesting, the unusual things we come across as writers? Nice hearing from you :-)

    Peggy--Yes! I didn't think vowels mattered that much either, so I'm glad you agree. I know what you mean about names giving us a "feeling." It's sort of like naming our kids :-) Talk to you later...

  7. Good to hear from you:) I struggle with choosing character names.My hero in my current WIP is named after my husband's new boss's name. Never met the guy yet but he had this handsome drawl and Tucker as a name. Who can't love that?

  8. I'd never come across that before, and I too am skeptical. But I do think our character's names come from somewhere within us, that our muse only knows--unless by chance it gets revealed to us. Today, on my way to work, I was listening to Phantom of the Opera on my IPod, and realized that the heroine's name is Crystal. My heroine's name is also Crystal. My story bears little resemblance to Phantom, however my hero is somewhat tortured, like the phantom, and I LOVE Phantom of the Opera. My conscious mind didn't realize I'd made an association, but my muse did.

  9. I've never heard of this rule either! Thanks so much for the great links.

    I wanted to let you know that I will be spotlighting your blog tomorrow for the Pay It Forward Blogfest :)

  10. This is great! Thanks for the info and links about names~ it's somthing that either comes easily in my projects or takes forever to find the perfect fit :)

  11. Hm. I've never heard that before either. I have 2 MCs - one with short, one with long vowels :)

  12. I've never heard of that advice, either.

    I use a baby naming website and pick names that I feel fit the character. I can easily spend an hour just on the mc's name. It's the last names I hate figuring out.

  13. Hi Kenda,
    Nice to meet you. I found your blog through the WritingNut's "Pay it Forward" blogfest ;)
    Lovely blog you have here. I love your pics and especially the kitty cat in your latest post ;)
    On March 31, 2010 I wrote a post regarding names for characters. In you're interested in reading it, I'd like to share it with you. See below.
    I just became your latest follower, yup! I am lucky #88.

  14. I, too, have never heard that writing "rule". But I completely agree with you with all your advice on choosing names. I lean towards the "what feels right", and then I'll look up name meanings-- often times, the meaning will correspond with the character and his/her role, and other times, I'll adjust according to the meaning. Names are so much fun.

  15. Hello Kenda! I'm also here because of Writing Nut's recommendation. This "rule" is a first for me too. Usually when I write, I don't have a names for my characters initially. As I get to know them I begin to "try out" names that seem to fit until I latch on to one.