One of the questions I hear a lot from beginning writers is, “Chris, how do you approach naming fictional characters?”
It’s an odd question because one would think naming a fictional character ought to feel intuitive. After all, you’ve got a character, they need a name, and you can no doubt come up with a hundred names off the top of your head. So just pick one and let’s get on with it. But it’s never that easy.
Allow me to speak from personal experience. In one of my earlier attempts to write a novel, I came up with the names of my characters on the fly. I’d write about a guy walking into the room, I’d name him Bob or Tom and keep going. But before long, I had four characters named Bob and it was impossible to keep track of who was who.
Worse yet, the process of renaming these characters turned out to be a nightmare. Writing in an MS Word document, I would of course do the Find–>Replace thing, enabling every mention of Bob to be switched out for, say, Larry. Next thing I knew I was coming across sentences like, “The rubber duck larrybed happily in the bathwater.”
What I’m trying to say is, if you fail to give the process of naming your fictional characters its due, it may come back to haunt you. But what does that process look like? I’ve come up with a few ideas I think might help:
Find your source
In The World According to Garp (hey, there’s a name), Garp comes up with names for his stories by keeping an old phone book on his desk. When he needs a name, he simply flips through the book and picks one out. Good idea! Too bad phone books aren’t as available today as they were in 1978.
My current favorite source for random names is the end credits of big budget movies. (You can find many, many end credits for movies with YouTube.) End credits are a fantastic source for names of all nationalities, since so many big budget movies bring in professionals from all over the world for things like costume design or foreign post-production coordination. Plus, it allows one to pay tribute to a favorite movie, even if the likelihood that anyone would notice the tribute is microscopically small.
Name Your Characters According to Their Nature
Think about some of your favorite characters in literature, good or bad. Now, ask yourself whether their goodness or badness is enhanced by their name. Does Lord Voldemort sound like a happy-go-lucky guy eager to be your friend? Of course not, he sounds like a guy who wields evil powers and lacks a nose. Does Holly Golightly sound like a woman who wrestles alligators and eats buffalo jerky? Of course not, she sounds like a woman who prioritizes beauty and elegance above everything else.
But you can be real subtle about it, too. A name like Mr. Chips (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) conveys an earnest and lovable nature without laying it on too thick. Winston Smith (1984), meanwhile, combines a certain individualized dignity (Winston) with an Everyman quality (Smith).
Keep Your Names Distinct From One Another
When reading a novel, have you ever had trouble keeping up with a lot of names? I know I have. In order to minimize the chances of this happening in your work, you might consider making your fictional characters’ names starkly different from each another. For instance, if one of your main characters is named William, maybe don’t name his wife Wilma.
And even though most people won’t be reading your work out loud, it’s probably a good idea to think about the mouthfeel of each character’s name. If you’ve got a character named Steve, for instance, see if you can go in another direction, phonetically, with the next character. Name them La Toya or Xander. This brings me to another, closely related point…
When coming up with character names, keep in mind how big the world really is. For example, if you find that you’ve given your last three characters somewhat vanilla names like Jim or Betty or Chris, it might be time to give your next character a slightly more “exotic” name, like Franco or Vishal or Imani. Not everyone in your novel should be named like they grew up in the suburbs listening to Coldplay.
What’s that? You’re writing a story set in 17th century Japan? Fine, you’ll want to avoid giving your characters names like Zack or Dee, but try and avoid giving your characters the 17th century Japanese equivalent of John/Mary.
Google the Name Before Using
I can remember, years ago, writing a short story about an Amish boy who’s been ordered by his father to drown a bagful of kittens in the creek near his house. The boy’s name? Ron Howard. When I shared this story with friends, every one of them wanted to know what I’ve got against the director of Apollo 13. Take a second to Google the names you’re considering, folks, is what I’m trying to say.
Yup, it sure would be nice if naming your fictional characters was as easy as it seems at first blush. But with a little consideration, the process can present numerous small opportunities to enhance your fiction in subtle yet powerful ways.