“He doesn’t look like a Paul“.
Ever heard that phrase, or something similar? Like it or not, there’s more to a character’s name than just a title. Your character’s name does a lot more than provide a hook to hang their hat on. Of course, you could just make up the first name that comes to mind, and for incidental characters, that’s not a problem. The name you give your character, however, can, if you want, provide a mini-back story, as well as insight into their attitude, function and role. It just takes a little thought.
If you’re truly stuck for ideas, you could try either a character name generator or one of the baby name websites which literally list thousands of names. But how to pick the one that’s just right for your main character. If you ever thought choosing a name was simply about plucking one out of the aether and hoping for the best, you may have been missing a huge trick. In fact, a well-chosen name can make your character memorable before they’ve uttered a word or entered the room. Fantasy genre aside, there’s no need to choose the outlandish, or go down the road of the graphic novel. A few careful thoughts about what you want your character’s name to portray can give both you, and your reader, a head start on who you’ve got hiding behind the words on your page.
Male or Female
Much depends on the genre, but in a lot of fiction the male character’s surname is used in favour of their given name and vice versa for females. While a male character’s given name might be established up front and even used in dialogue, the narrative will usually refer to them by surname. Some modern writers try to de-sex this notion, but generally-speaking readers accept that women’s names are given names and men’s names are surnames. Psychologically, it imparts a certain invulnerability to the male character – surnames are tougher – and vulnerability to female, where the given name implies intimacy. Sexist hangover? Absolutely. But the convention is still going strong.
Men are ‘Doers’
Given the convention that male characters are referred to by surname, the choice of surname becomes paramount. Tough characters in action-based novels often have surnames associated with doing things (Taylor, Archer, Cooper), or elemental names that imply strength (Steel, Stone, Gold). If their ethnic background is key to their character, this might also influence the name choice (McClain, Jurgens, Kovacs).
Female characters, who, as already said, are usually referred to by given name, can be attributed the desired quality in a similar fashion. Female given names usually fall into categories such as botanical, historic or ethnic. Depending on the kind of character you want her to have, you can make your choice from one of these (or other) categories.
What it Looks Like on the Page
Seriously? That matters? Damn right it does. To keep pace with the action or dialogue, especially during tense scenes when you want your reader fully-engaged, it’s vital that your characters can be identified quickly and easily on the page. Even if the names are pronounced completely differently, or belong to different male or female characters, two visually similar names in the same book run the risk of confusing the reader. It doesn’t matter if the same two characters are in different scenes, either. If the names appear similar on paper, the reader will have to work out which character is present in the scene to get their mental picture right. Extreme for instance: Rod and Ron. Two completely different names; two different characters. But in dialogue or scene changes, the reader needs to remember which name belongs to which character, where they each are in the novel and what they’ve done, etc, or literally lose the plot.
Make sure character names have different lengths and that they don’t start with the same letter. If you have a lot of characters, that might sound daunting, but there are a lot of names out there, and a lot of name lists.
Pick Something Comfortable
Aside from fantasy readers, who will love you for your made-up weird and wonderful names, many people dislike having to pause and pronounce a name in their head every time it appears. If there are lots of these made up names, especially if this extends to locations and objects, it can become mentally taxing, making your book less appealing before the reader even gets to the story.
Ideally a name should inspire an image for your character. Keeping it simple and comfortable not only makes the character easier to remember and identify with, it puts less stress on the reader’s mind, so they can enter the story unhindered.
Get the Period Right
Anachronistic names in a period novel are the quickest way to remind your reader that they’re reading a book. Do an online search for popular names for that period (e.g., 19th C girls names) before picking one. I’m almost certain Kylie won’t be on there (though I haven’t checked). Effectively, an out-of-timeframe name in a historical novel is a lazy way to say, ‘This is a book wot I wrote’.
Retrospective names can of course still be used, but picking one which was popular in the novel’s time period makes it seem more authentic.
Names don’t have to sound heroic, though. Some of the greatest characters in fiction have unassuming names. Think Philip Marlowe, Clarice Starling, Nancy Drew. Some of the best villains have names which make them sound like your everyday boy-next-door. Norman Bates, anyone?
Sometimes choosing an unassuming name (rather than unmemorable) can be more effective than an awesome-sounding one. In fact, the more awesome a character’s name, the more contrived they can often seem. Unless you’re a graphic novelist, this is not what you’re aiming for.
Choosing the right name can put subconscious preconceptions into your reader’s mind about your character
- Skills (Taylor, Tanner, Smith)
- Strength (Stone, Steel)
- Class (Cecil, Elizabeth, Smythe)
- Period (Daisy, Arthur, Ethel)
- Place/Ethnicity (Vladimir, Olga, Jagdeesh)
These preconceptions can also work on you, as a writer by giving you a foundation on which to build your character. In this article, I’ve taken names at their most basic. There are millions of names out there, and some in your head, which you can choose to furnish your characters with. Choose wisely and make your characters as memorable as these guys:
Every single thing you put into your book creates a mental image for your reader. Don’t forget to use names as part of that process.