Develop Your Ear

Musicians know this term well: “Develop your ear.” In its simplest form, it is the ability to hear what is going on inside of the music – it goes beyond just understanding the melody and the rhythm section. Musicians who develop this ability quickly mature and often take their playing to a higher level of artistry.

A dancer must also develop an ear to respond to, and sensitively move with, the music, which can lead to an almost spiritual performance.

Writers too must develop their ear –– for dialogue, for syntax and not least of all for the names they choose to give their story’s characters.

Parents often choose names we think are beautiful, majestic or simply cool to give our children. Writers do the same.

Yet, if readers upon seeing the name of your character in print respond with, “How do I pronounce it?” or “Huh?” Then you’ve taken your audience out of your story, and that is a major faux pas.

This does not mean names should be generic. On the contrary, unique names are wonderful, especially with effective alliteration. However, every name you give a character should suit your story –– the world you are building — and not just because you fancy the look and sound of the name itself.

Names that are hard to pronounce, too long, too short, or too alien to be incorporated into the time and place of your story may work against your intentions. Writers must weigh the name of the characters as heavily as parents must weigh the names they give their children. Once in print, it remains with them for life.

Bilbo Baggins feels and sounds like a Hobbit’s name. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy feel and sound like proper British names and fit the time period for which their story is set; in the sixty-nine years since The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was first published, these names have stood the test of time. Peter Parker is a very ordinary name. It’s perfect for an ordinary boy who, only after being bitten by a radioactive spider, develops superpowers and the alter ego Spider-man.

My recommendation is to study world cultures to learn what names mean in their culture of origin, and to respect the setting of your story. Using the name Greg would be incorrect for period story inspired by Middle Eastern folklore, but Omar would not be out of place in a story set in present day North America or Europe, simply due to the multicultural character of the regions.

Developing the type of intuition, developing an ear for the names of your character, will allow you to more easily find names for your characters that are resonant with readers and that resonate with your story as a whole. Bringing together sound and rhythm and meaning are very important. Get inside your character. Listen to how names tell the reader about character you’re imagining – the character’s quirks and shortcomings, charms and temperament – and give your characters names that best communicate those features to the reader.


Kaja Blackley is the author of Maggie MacCormack and the Witches’ Wheel now on sale: