Consider Cruella de Vil from A Hundred And One Dalmatians. Would she inspire the same fear if she were named Becky Jones? Would Hannibal Lecter be as menacing if he were Sheldon Greenblatt? What about “Call me Fred?” Doesn’t have quite the same je ne sais quoi, does it?
But how do you come up with just the right name for your character? Here are a few things to think about:
1. Choose something age-appropriate. If I’m writing an American, middle-class character about my age, I think back to high school. Kathy, Lisa, Donna, Mary, and Karen were very popular names for girls, and there were a lot of guys named David, Steven, and Mike. Not that you wouldn’t find something more unusual floating about, but in fiction, readers are more likely to go with the probable than the possible. If my character is in her thirties, he or she may have a spunkier name like Jason, Jennifer, Stephanie, or Stacy. (My thirty-something protagonist of The Joke’s on Me is named Frankie.) A teenager may have been named after his or her mother’s favorite pop culture star. Hence the number of Ashleys, Olivias, Justins, and Britneys floating around.
2. Choose something regionally, ethnically, or culturally appropriate. This is a dicier area, because you don’t want to offend your readers by using a cultural or ethnic stereotype. If you have a character in your story who comes from an ethnic or cultural group different from your own, do some research. In some countries, babies are given very specific names based on their meanings. In some cultures or religions, it’s considered bad luck to name a child after a dead relative, while in others, this is done frequently and almost expected. What has helped me is a directory of worldwide baby names with their meanings. And my good friend, Google.
3. Consider your character’s role in the story. An unlikely hero (or heroine) may have an unassuming name, like David Copperfield or The Grapes of Wrath‘s Tom Joad. Or, a timid character saddled with a heroic name (or a larger-than-life relative’s name) may struggle to fill those big shoes.
4. Avoid making a name into a “reading bump” if possible. I loved the name Lisbeth for one of my characters, but my writing group’s feedback convinced me to change it to something simpler because they kept getting stuck on it and feeling distracted from the story. She’s now Liz. No harm, no foul, no “reading bumps.”
5. Unless you’re writing comedy or a funny children’s book, avoid any name that rhymes with “said.” I never thought about this until I wrote a contemporary novel in which I’d named the husband Ted. Imagine page after page of “Ted said” and all those readers laughing to themselves because of the unintentional rhyme. I actually considered putting the whole thing in present tense so I wouldn’t have to deal with that particular issue! It was much easier, and better for the story, to change the husband’s name.
6. If your character cries out for an unusual name (think Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye or Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces), he or she will most likely pay the consequences, just as in real life. But this is rich material for character development. These consequences (teasing, bullying, even scorn for being named after an infamous figure) may end up shaping the character.
7. Still stumped? Open the phone book, peruse baby-naming books, or scan popular culture for an interesting, appropriate name.
How do you name your characters? What are some of your favorite character names from the books you’ve read? Any that you felt didn’t fit the character? Or fit him or her exceptionally well? Any name you’re really tired of hearing? Let’s talk about it!