Jon Michael Galindo

~ writing, programming, art ~

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13 August 2015

Naming Characters

Naming characters poses a real challenge for some writers, including me. A good name must stand out and sound "right" to stick with a reader. Somehow, professional writers just seem to pull these amazing names out of thin air.

Never fear! There's a trick to it all.

If you want the quick fix, check this out. I'm a programmer, so as soon as I figured out how to make a good name, I wrote a computer program to do it for me. Now, it can do it for you: an amazing name is one click away.

If, however, you'd rather come up with your own names, (who wouldn't?), it's definitely doable. It's all about how your mouth makes sounds.

Every syllable in the English language has two basic properties; I'll call them "force" and "tone."


Each syllable begins and ends with a force: either "open" or "hard".

Take the word "ate." The begining is open. It's open because you open your mouth completely to say it; vowels are almost always open and so is "h". The ending is actually "t", (the "e" is silent), and it's hard. It's hard because you have to close your mouth, (your teeth in this case), to say it. Get it?

These syllables all start open and end hard: of, at, old, ape, it, age, ax, oak, itch, ask. Try to say the first few together quickly, and notice how it feels.

These syllables start hard, then end open: foe, too, cue, pie, me, pay, dye, see, day, boo.

These words all start hard, then end hard: cut, slip, pipe, drip, tape, gap, spat, pot. Try to say a few of these together quickly.

These words all start open, then end open: hoe, aloe, any, only, iffy, arrow, anew, oddly, hay.

Just to mess you up, there are some sounds that can be either open or hard: You close your mouth most of the way to say them. These include "n", "l", and sometimes "w", (when it starts a word), and "r", depending on how you pronounce them.

These words start hard but end ambiguously, they can be open or hard, depending on what you need:for, pen, still, lore, can, file, stair, lean, pale.

When "w" starts a word, it's usually ambiguous: it can be open or hard, like so: (these also end ambiguously)will, when, where, wail.

The most important secret in making names sound good, or making any set of strung-together words sound good, is to vary open sounds with hard sounds. If a word ends hard, the next one needs to begin open, and vice verca.

These follow the rule:The stray dog nearly bit him!Caroline GrayAndrew FosterGeorge Lopez

These break the rule: (They're bad!)That kid came close, but lost.Mitch CulversKay EspinozaLindsay Allen

To make a name sound good, make sure the names end/start with different forces, or that at least one is ambiguous.

(Interestingly, if you Google a good-sounding name, you'll find more than twice the hits you would find when Googling a name that breaks the rule.)


Force is the big one, but tone matters. Essentially, vowels create two tones: "flat" or "bright". Bright sounds stretch your mouth, (either like a smile or like an "O"), when you say them. Flat words don't. Say these flat words to yourself and listen: law, half, cap, fall, bore, coal, ship, ton, walk, stop

Now, try these bright words, and notice the difference:lay, pie, may, sky, fly, tame, they, row, spoke, rule, cue

Many words contain both flat and bright sounds:apathy, organize, execute, running, regal

Tone is not as important as force, but a name that mixes bright and flat tones sounds more natural. Names using only one kind of tone sound a little odd: (but not awful)Tye Reese, Josie Keen, Paul Muntz, Lara Cole

Well, that's it! Remember those two patterns when choosing a name, and you'll choose well every time. Or, if you'd rather have a program pick one for you, head on over to the Name Generator. It's just applying these same rules to lists of common names and surnames.

May your writing be more clever for it.

© Jon Michael Galindo 2015