Following a story with main characters called Doug and Don would frustrate me, unless the author made clear the specific reason for interchangeable, similar-sounding names. A historical tale, a story set in well-known location with a homogeneous population, limit name choices. That my memoir features personalities from all over the world, action not far back in the past, is my good luck.

My challenge has been the number of characters. Winnowing my teaching experiences to about a dozen and a half vignettes about my students, interspersed with shorter snapshots, has resulted in a manuscript with over a hundred names of students and colleagues. Nobody (but me) has her/his ‘real’ name. As well, ethnicities, ages, genders, appearances are altered, characters combined, to prevent identification.

Most pieces feature only a few characters, so avoiding the Doug and Don concern has been manageable. Yet, if the main character in one vignette is Lisa, perhaps the student teacher in a couple of others shouldn’t be Elissa. After a while, I started a list of names; checking it got more complex as my manuscript grew.


  •  Vary the number of syllables among names in a piece. Some names have four or five.
  •  Avoid using the same initial for more than one character in a piece.
  •  Start some names with consonants, others with vowels.
  •  Especially in a piece with many characters, consider a double letter in one name, a hyphen in another, an accent…
  •  Avoid final letter and end-sound duplication. If both Kendal and Dougal are essential, end one with ll. Harder to spot are similar sounds with different spellings. If Marie is the main character, perhaps her sister shouldn’t be Emily.
  •  Vary ethnicities if plausible. Doing so comes naturally for stories about Toronto high school students. It’s possible to search online for names of various ethnicities. Some websites give names’ meanings. Some sites are more reliable and useful than others. Watch out for scary-looking url’s.

Not all characters need both given names and surnames. Most of my student characters lack surnames. Some parents coin names; I’ve coined no given names for my characters. I have coined surnames, because any surname significantly less oommon than Smith will surely belong to someone identifiable, who, if s/he discovers my book, may be distressed. I’ve not found the coined names online, have rejected many surnames that turn out to belong to actual people. I hope very common names for minor characters don’t infringe.

Some real people, living and dead, appear in my manuscript. Some, not all, of their names limit name choices. I often taught twentieth-century Canadian history. John Diefenbaker appears, as does a character I’ve named John, but because Lester B. Pearson appears, no other character is named Lester.

I want to feel each name I choose somehow suits that character. This is emotional, visceral, with little basis in fact. Sometimes, naming a character takes an unexpected amount of time. Choices that ring true to me work in reverse, helping me know the characters better, so I can write more clearly about them.