Monday, February 13, 2012

Annoying Names in Novels

When authors try to be clever it annoys me to no end.

I would rather my readers spend their time immersed in my stories than looking for hidden meaning in the names or locations, so I was floored when one of my readers pointed out one time that the name Sevren (a villain who first appears in The Pawn) is Nerves spelled backward.

Man, I hadn’t noticed that, and I never would have used the name if I had.

Why? Because when readers see that, they’ll naturally start looking for more of the same and that would get in the way of their engagement with the story.

I’ve seen authors use Angela to represent—guess what?—an angelic, good character, my, how unobtrusive that is. Or Diablo as the name for a character who . . .  well, you get it.

Yes, I know, Natasha spelled backward is “Ah, Satan” and could be your devil worshipping character, but please don’t fall into that trap.

Yes, you could use the name “Marie Annette” for a character who’s being used as a puppet.  The name looks okay on the page, but say it aloud and you’ll notice that it sounds the same as “marionette.” As soon as readers notice this, what do you think they’ll naturally do?

Yes, of course, they’ll start analyzing every name, every location, to see what you, the clever author, are using them to represent. And when that happens readers are no longer in the story itself, but looking at it from the outside in and you’ve shot yourself in the foot. 

Why do this to yourself? 

Just use normal names. 

Don’t let anything get in the way of the story.


Jenni said...

This is great, simple advice. Thank you for it. I want to say "I am an aspiring writer" but I really hate the two words "aspiring writer" when what I really mean is "desperately clinging to the hope that one day my name will be in print, and not that pathetic excuse for print that is self-publishing, but REAL print, by an established publishing house, and also, while we're dreaming, let's put my book up in the New York Times bestseller's list, okay?" BUT "aspiring author" is much more succinct.

I tracked down this here blog after reading your completely marvelous CNN post. The CNN post echoed my own heart so thoroughly that I wanted to come say "hi!"


Will come back often to read more of your writerly tips and advice. If you feel like visiting my place on the world wide interwebs, I would be honored.

Nicole B. said...

How are you today? My husband showed me your article on CNN and I really enjoyed it. I would like to know if you can recommend a translation of the bible that is not as sugar coated as some of the others? That was not mentioned in your article. I usually use the KJV and would like to explore and study more. I appreciate your help with this.

Thank you and God bless you!
nnb1978@charter. net

Unknown said...

I'm no theologian, nor am I a language scholar. From what I understand, the translation that's the most literal is the NASB, while the one that translates things most accurately in the idioms we use today is the NLT.

In other words, my teenage daughter might say, "That's wicked!" Which really means, "That's cool!" The NLT would translate it like that (for adults to understand), I'm not sure how the NASB would, but it would be a more literal rendering of the word wicked. Make sense?

Don't get too frustrated, try the New Living Translation and you can trust that it's getting at the heart of what the original languages were saying.

--Steven James

Anonymous said...

Hello Steven,
I was reading an online story today about a new naval too called the "railgun"-which is eerily similar to your story in The Rook. There is even a company calledGeneral Atomics in San Diego-where your story took place. I am just curious as to where you obtained your research for this story, that so closely emulates reality so closeyl. It is almost scary.

kelly said...

Howdy there sir! I hope you read your comments, bc I truly want you to know how much I enjoy your work. As an author, I hope you are satisfied to know that you totally draw the reader in...I can see all the characters in my mind. I like them, love them, miss them when the story is over. This is probably what you go for, right? :) When I read I become sort of 'dysfunctional' for hours, skip meals, don't sleep bc I only want to read. Your Patrick Bowers series has me mesmerized...and I love/hate that they won't be complete till 2014. Ugh. That means I have to wait that long. But, it also means it won't all be 'over' for that long either. Sigh.
I am impressed with your work, I really enjoy it...and I tell lots of people about your books.
Thank you sir. :)
Kelly :)

Steven James said...


Thanks for taking the time to write. The next Bowers book will release this summer, I believe August 1. I hope you continue to enjoy them.

Best--Steven James

Samantha said...

I choose names that have meaning for my characters mostly for myself... I love names with meanings... however it usually isn't anything like that... the closest thing to that is a character named Leon who was brave :P But most of the time I choose names that are relatively similar to ones bearing the meanings I want... in OTHER languages... makes everything more fun haha

Alexandra Jacobs said...

I came across your website and found it very enjoyable. I just had a couple of questions so if you could e-mail me back that would be great!

Steven James said...

@ Alexandra: You can email me at

Anonymous said...

I am obsessed with your books Mr. James! I need some advice though. I'm writing a fantasy story and, I wanted to use some mystical names that I made up. Is there a certain trick to having a name that sounds original, but doesn't make you stubble across it when someone is reading it?
Also, do you type up your writing drafts or are they hand written? I normally write in notebooks, but after a while the pencil lead smears. Do you have a suggestions?
Do you create some of your characters slightly based off people you know, or do you make up someone out of your imagination?
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and I look forward to your reply.
God Bless

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