Congratulations! You have created a masterful, swoon-worthy, fully embodied character who is ready to take on whatever fresh hell you can throw at them (because let’s be honest, driving a character up a tree and seeing how they’ll get themselves down is more fun than it probably should be). But wait! This magnificent hero is, alas, nameless, and it’s hard to sing heroic ballads when you don’t have something to call them.
Sweetest Name I Ever Heard
When considering names, the two most important characters are, naturally, the protagonist and antagonist. If working with a large cast though, it’s also worth thinking big picture. How does a collection of names sound and interact together on the page?
As a reader, I can get confused when too many characters have names that sound similar. This happens when the majority of names start with the same letter, have the same vowel pattern, or are too lengthy. If too many names are too long, it tires out my brain and I start filling in the names with white-noise. Not good, right?
I’m not saying we as writers should use every letter of the alphabet, or that we can’t use long names. But I find it helpful to think about the overall feel of the story when choosing names. It helps me to keep readers in mind as I sculpt the characters I want them to love.
A characters name should reflect the culture of the world they live in. Lately, I’ve done quite a bit of research in the name of, well, names. This is so my characters more accurately reflect the time periods they live in. In terms of fantasy and sci-fi genres, this part can be a little trickier, but it comes down to a matter of authenticity.
Take the show Stranger Things. It takes place in a small town in the 1980s, and follows four middle school boys named Will, Mike, Dustin, & Luke. Fitting, right? It creates expectations for the boundaries of their world, the type of story being told. But then there’s Eleven. She completely shifts the tone of the story. Her name solidifies her as something “strange”, something out of place, and the audience holds onto that sense of uncertainty for the remainder of the story.
Essentially, character names can add to the tone of the work. They can also reinforce the culture and setting. It may seem a subtle detail, but it really can work wonders in terms of creating a more believable world in the context of fiction.
Does the Name Make the Character?
A character’s name rarely makes or breaks a story, unless it’s a piece that relies heavily on symbolism. (You want to talk symbolic names, read Catch-22. Also, it’s a fantastic book, so you should really just read it anyway.) Recently, I’ve been more mindful about what exactly I’m looking for when researching names. So far, it’s helped me get a much better grasp on not only the fictional culture I created, but on the nature of my characters themselves. The truth is, trying to name a character based on a cool, underlying meaning isn’t always necessary. Sometimes, Doug is just Doug.
As much as it broke my heart, I recently forced myself to change the names of some of my main characters. It’s not that I didn’t like the names. I wanted a cohesive world for my characters to live in, and one way to do that is through names. While I’m not rolling out Marley and Holden‘s new digs just yet, I will say that changing their names has added an additional layer of believability to the world I built for them.
Question of the week: What are some of your favorite characters’ names?