This weekend I saw Baz Luhrmann’s sumptuous, over the top, movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby and was reminded, yet again, of the power certain fictional names have on the psyche. Gatsby. Not a name one easily forgets. Neither is Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester or those great detective names: Sam Spade, Nero Wolfe, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Even the most mundane sounding names can achieve prominence, simply because of their ordinariness (take Harry Potter for example). But naming a character is by no means an easy task. You have to balance the unusual with the commonplace and try to run the gauntlet between a cool, distinguished name and one that verges on being a soap-opera/porn name that you’d expect to see on somewhere like m porn xxx instead of a blockbuster Hollywood picture. So how do you come up with a memorable character name?
First and foremost it must reflect your character. I find this is a critical first step – finding a character name that reflects the character’s voice on the page. I’ve recently been revisiting an old WIP (finally having worked out the answer to a plot conundrum) and found myself weighing up two versions of the main protagonist’s name, trying them on to see which fit best. It’s a tricky process and one that has a cascading effect on other character names as well (as I can’t exactly have a cast of characters all with names starting with ‘M’!). But what other issues do authors need to pay attention to in naming characters? Here are a few:
- Make sure the name is appropriate for the time and place of the story. For example, a story set in Victorian England is unlikely to have a female called Morgan Star. Equally well, it’s hard to imagine a contemporary character in their 20s called Edna or Constance (unless there’s a good back story or some degree of irony/humour going on!).
- Check meanings/origins of names so you don’t inadvertently use an offensive or inappropriate foreign word or name. Also, sometimes the name can provide the reader with a hidden clue based on the origin or meaning of their name.
- Make sure the name looks great on the page as well as when spoken aloud. On occasion, I have come up with a great name on paper but the pronunciation of it has caused a few tongue twisters (which is a bit embarrassing at book readings!).
- Don’t try to be too clever, too cute or too obscure. The character’s name should enhance, not detract from the story so don’t make a reader work too hard to decipher a name. Use the most common spellings unless there is a real reason (a reader will be taken out of a story by a name that they have to struggle to work out).
- Finally avoid names which end in an ‘s’. I learned this the hard way…
So what about you all – what advice would you give fellow writers about coming up with terrific character names? What are are your favorite characters names? What about character names that set you teeth on edge?