I used to think it was weird when people choose not to decide on a baby name until after the birth. The typical reason? We want to see what the little bundle looks like! What if you decide on something edgy, like Brandt, and the little guy looks conservative. More like a Charles, maybe. What if you name your daughter something demure, like Jane, and she looks like a party animal. Perhaps you would be better served going with Britney or Jenna. Although I understand this way of thought, it’s not something I ascribe to. I am of the opposite belief. That our children (or characters) will grow to embody the names we give them.
My characters often have faces and personalities when they arrive in the conscious mind, but they are always nameless. It never takes long, however, for me to try a few on for size and see what fits. Often I choose a name I have always liked, maybe one from my baby name list that hubby has assured me I will never get to name our child (should we ever have one). Sometimes I name them after family, friends, or professional acquaintances. I’ll admit that sometimes I name villains variations of people I can’t stand. Watch out, cop who gave me two tickets last summer. You know who you are. No matter how they are blessed with their names, my characters always seem to find a way to make it fit. The main character in my first novel is a history professor who survived an abusive, lonely childhood. She prefers to bury herself in her work and blocks out the world. She’s a perfect Eleanor.
Since I have leapt into the madness that is Twitter, created this blog, and spent hours on end reading other industry blogs, I notice how much valuable is spent kicking around potential character names. Then I realize I don’t spend much time at all, and start to wonder if I’m missing something. The hardest time I had naming characters came in my most recent manuscript, and only because part of it takes place in Bangladesh and Thailand. Even then, I used the internet (that blessing and curse), went to a website of the most popular baby names by country, and picked some out.
When I started researching for this post, I found a multitude of articles on naming characters, on how important it is, and how we writers should be careful about any influence a characters name would have on our readers. Symbolism is tricky, I think. I avoid it, because it’s too easy to come across as cheesy. For example, an angelic character named Gabriel. A druggie named Mary Jane. Your writing should make us understand the character’s personality, I think using their name to do so can be a cop out. Some things are obvious. If we have a lovable protagonist, his name should not be any of the following: Osama, Adolf, or Barney. An exotic, interesting lover? Probably not a Ned or a Fred. Which leads me to quote one of the best movies ever, When Harry Met Sally. You want to write good dialogue? Read this script. Or anything written by Nora Ephron or Rob Reiner.
Harry: “Shel? Sheldon? No, you did not have great sex with Sheldon.”
Sally: “I did too.”
Harry: “No. A Sheldon can do your income taxes. You need a root canal, Sheldon’s your man. But humpin’ and pumpin is not Sheldon’s strong suit. It’s the name. Do it to me Sheldon. You’re an animal Sheldon. Ride me big…Sheldon. It doesn’t work.”
You get the idea, and I think it’s something we all realize as readers. My biggest goal is to not have my characters names detract from the story. I want my main characters to be likable and identifiable, but I want my story to be remembered. This leads me to my question. How much time do you spend, writer friends, coming up with character names? Do you put much thought into them, or do they just fit together naturally, like mine do? Do you try to come up with something different, something memorable, or just something that won’t stand out and distract from your story? Lastly, how important do you think a characters name is to the ultimate success of your story? Looking forward to the discussion, as always!