What’s in a name? To be fair, quite a lot. Imagine if, in the original series of books, Ian Fleming had called James Bond’s character Alfred Popperdinkle? How about Horacio Hornblower? Dick Trumpet? None of those names have quite the same ring, do they?
Naming a character is one of the most vital steps in composing fiction. It can also be one of the most difficult, especially when you consider the positive or negative connotations we subconsciously attach to certain combinations of letters. The mechanics of these attachments vary from person to person, but some are pretty much universal. Who, for example, would name one of their characters Adolf or Hitler, unless they were trying to provoke a very specific range of emotions? The same can be said for Ghengis Khan, Osama Bin Laden, Jeffrey Dahmer, and any number of other historical villains.
Other names contain references or allusions to words that have distinct, pre-existing meanings. For examples of this in practice, we need look no further than Charles Dickens, who delighted in naming some of his minor characters such things as Murdstone, Stryver and Slyme. Every time the reader sees the name, they are reminded of that particular character’s dominant trait. There is even a term for this. Cratylic naming, whereby a given moniker accurately describes the person on whom it is bestowed.
Other names have much more positive traits attached to them. How about Mike Hammer, Thomas Magnum, and Jim Rockford? These are, of course, the names of fictional private detectives. But each are ‘strong’ sounding names, suggesting men of integrity and honor.
So, we can safely assume that character names are important. Perhaps too important. The responsibility of naming certain characters often causes a kind of paralysis in the writer. One of the most common complaints I hear involves people struggling to think of the perfect name; one which portrays the right image, and perfectly encompasses the qualities your character possesses. If you dwell on it too much, it can become a significant stumbling block.
But it doesn’t need to be that way.
I keep a list of names in a Word document. This is something I’ve always done. I also have one for titles. The ‘name’ document is divided into male and female sections, and then further divided into heroes and villains. Whenever I’m in need of a name, I just go to the document and choose a suitable one. Okay, so where do the names come from?
A variety of sources. I skim news reports, take note of the opening and closing credits on movies and TV shows, browse newspapers and magazines. However, it’s much more fun to get creative. Is there a friend or a family member you feel indebted to? Put them in a story. Trust me, they will be elated. You can treat it as a kind of in-joke. Or, if you think they won’t see it that way, do a little tweaking. Whatever happens, it’s unlikely they’ll come after you with a lawsuit. They wouldn’t have a case anyway, unless you write some extremely disparaging remarks about them which have some established parallel with real-life events, and who would do that?
By the same token, it can also be a nice way to honor your heroes. A surprising amount of my stories over the years have featured prominent Cardiff City Football Club players. Of course, nobody else, apart from the occasional reader, knows this. To most people, they’re just names.
You can also utilize the Internet. Try searching for lists of the most popular baby names from whatever era you are writing about. This tactic is especially useful when writing historical fiction. Various free-to-use databases also make it easy to check a name’s origins. Try this one for first names (http://www.namepedia.org/en/firstname/). This one is for surnames (http://www.surnamedb.com/). Of course, if you are really stuck, or prefer leaving things completely to chance, you could always use a random name generator like this one ( http://www.fakenamegenerator.com/)
Make no mistake, choosing the right names for your characters can be a challenge. But if you get it right, they will give your work added authenticity and a lot more depth.
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C.M. Saunders is a freelance journalist and editor. His work has appeared in over sixty magazines, ezines and anthologies, including Loaded, Record Collector, Fantastic Horror, Trigger Warning, Liquid imagination, and the Literary Hatchet. His books have been both traditionally and independently published, the most recent being Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story (Uncut), which is available now on Deviant Dolls Publications. He is represented by Media Bitch literary agency.