Choosing a Character Name: like a key word for your reader

Egill Skallagrímsson doing his thing with the ...
Image via Wikipedia

My first task for today was to rename the antagonist who has had the same name in my mind for over a year.  Though many of the characters in the story are based on real people with historically verifiable names, the antagonist comes from my imagination.  One of the challenges of creating historical fiction is to not only stay within the time period but to use names, wherever possible that will resonate with the modern reading audience.

If you have ever struggled through the first 100 pages of an Icelandic saga or a 19th Century Russian novel, you know that identifying characters by name can present a challenge for the reader.  Modern readers are neither as acculturated nor as patient.  The name you choose for your main characters is like a key word or a tag.  Yep!  Bing!  There he is. That name must be instantly recognizable.  Shorter is better than long unless the name is quite fantastic and recognizable by its length alone.

The reason I am renaming the antagonist is that his old name began with the same letter of the alphabet as the protagonist.  If you are thinking in terms of keywords and tags, even if the character names are pronounced differently, have different consonants, originate in different linguistic traditions, this is still a confusion for the reader.

If you are into your story and find that one of the character names is not working for whatever reason, use a simple search and replace action to correct with the new name and continue on with the story.

Think of your character name as a key word, a tag for your reader to follow the story.  No searching back through the first 20 pages trying to sort out the characters.  No confusion over similar sounding names.  Names start with different letters of the alphabet.  However complicated and full of twists, turns, conflicts and reversals you story line may be, the characters should remain clear from the beginning.  Choosing the right name is a reading aid for the reader and a boost for your story.

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