Right then, character names. It’s a subject many writing blogs address so I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon and throw my probably-just-this-side-of-ignorant theories out there.
Are you going to be inspired to change your methods on coming up with memorable and poignant names in your stories? Well, probably not. Sorry about that. If you’re a writer then I’m sure there are other more difficult topics in the Writerverse that you yearn to learn more about, but I’m not quite at the ‘Listen to me, I know lots of shit’ phase yet so you’ll have to make do with this incoherent rambling.
I think we’re all agreed that a memorable character name can help to ingrain a story in a reader’s mind. But surely the plot and setting are more important, right? Yeah, probably (side-note, I’ve used that word three times already – quick writing tip; use a thesaurus).
A great character name will add something more to the plot and setting, though. Just think of your favourite book, I bet you can name the majority of the characters from it. Is that solely because you love the story and have read it a number of times? Maybe, but those names, I’m sure, are just so perfect in the specifics of the tale that they just seem to fit.
One thing I’ve noticed is that, and I might be wrong, a first name and surname is more important in a novel. In a short story you’re more likely to get away with only introducing characters with their first names. For one, you’ve got to think of the word count. But also the plot of a short story should move at such a fast pace that there’s not too much time to get bogged down with all those surnames to remember. Whereas in a novel, the names can help to make your characters more solid and fleshed-out.
That’s not to say that all short story characters shouldn’t have a surname related to the reader, that’s just crazy talk.
So come on then, where is my insightful input of what makes a great character name? OK, spoiler alert – I don’t have much. The majority of my typings on the computer are short stories. Many are kind of meh, some are a little better and have even been liked enough by others to be published online (yay me). Were any of those published because of the superbly awesome character names I’d concocted? I don’t think so.
I don’t really put enough effort into considering names for my protagonists and antagonists, not as much as I should anyway. Usually I’ll just go with something that sounds realistic, however boring that may sound.
All my stories are contemporary, so I need names that would not sound out of place in the real world. Living in England, we don’t have as many exotic-sounding names as in say, America (well not for at least ten years anyway when all the celebrity-inspired baby names have developed into adulthood). So I tend to play it relatively safe with Jack, Peter, Alex, etc. I won’t name them all but it’s the same with the names of the female characters.
Although saying that I do tend to try and link the name, however tenuous, to something in the story. For example, in a zombie story I named the lady Zara (Z for Zombies, get it?) and the man George (after the late Mr Romero). Would a reader pick up on that? I don’t know whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing.
I have also been known to pick names of people I know. Somehow it seems sort of cathartic to kill a character named after that idiot from my school days or have someone sharing an ex’s name murdered horrifically (OK, that’s a joke, I’m not bitter by nature).
As I’ve said, in my opinion it is more important for surnames in longer works. I’ve written a novel and a novella, both of which are still in the beta-reading-needing stage at the moment and then probably (definitely) require an editor to tidy up the bits that don’t make sense or are just plain stupid. But in these two works I’ve had to take a plunge into the surname cesspit to see what I can pull out. And believe me, it’s rancid in there!
Where else does inspiration come from? I’m not sure how many other people do this, but I do stare at my bookcase scanning the authors there to try and come up with surnames. Shamefully I have named characters King, Barker, and Mellick before. I also named a lady Julie Dickinson, her surname being that because I love Iron Maiden, and her first name after an annoying bitch at work (the character was an annoying bitch, hmm so why name her after Bruce Dickinson? Maybe a rethink needs to be going on here).
I have a tip for you. Keep a notebook with you at all times (or be all au courant and get an app on your phone) specifically with the purpose to write down potential character names. It’s amazing how many times I’ve thought of intriguing combos of names then subsequently forgotten them much later and gone with simply Barry Smith, or something.
Although I’m sure this memory aid is something writers already do.
So what is the point of this whole piece? Am I going to provide any advice?
I suppose I’d say you need to put as much thought and possibly research into naming your characters as you do for inventing the other components of the story.
Make the names realistic, so that your ripped space-cop-hero-sexpot isn’t named Gilbert or Rupert or something. Equally don’t call the sassy love interest Gladys or Beryl.
Although if your story is set seventy or eighty years in the past, these might do nicely.
Jesus is a name that’s kind of been done before and whatever your story you’ll probably struggle to pull this one off. But in a tale where a protagonist fights against a common evil (either literal or metaphorical), using another Biblical name may be one way to go.
Adolf is one to avoid, though. If a character is called that then the reader already hates him. Unless you name your hero Adolf, that might work in a sort of ironic sense? Nah, forget that one.
I’m sure the phonebook (do they still even have those?) would be a good place to start, or is that a too-obvious tip?
I’m signing off now, I’m starting to make less sense than usual. I need to go and write hundreds of names down in my sparkling new notebook.
Thanks for reading, honestly!