I believe that it is human nature to want to ‘name’ things: our children, our pets, our homes, our cars, and for some enthusiasts—our body parts. But as writers we have that extra responsibility of naming of our characters, or in other words, the living, breathing, souls that infiltrate our stories. Believe it or not, it’s a tricky concept. It’s more than just picking a name off the top of our heads; in fact, the right name, in many ways, is fifty percent good characterization. Nondescript names (unless they are intentionally so) often do not fly. That’s not to say that common, everyday names don’t work in fiction, but they MUST suit the characters on many different levels.
See this link from Writer’s Digest before reading on.
Here are some famous examples from literature:
Guess the bookworm…Eugene (Gene) or Phineas (Finny)?
Guess the cunning tramp…Oliver or (Artful) Dodger?
Scout: A tomboy or a Miss Priss?
That being said, would Atticus Finch be as memorable if his name were Joe Jones? What if Holden Caufield’s name was Bob Green? Think of your favorite book. What do you remember most? The plot? The descriptive language? Or the characters? Now take that one step further…the character’s names, perhaps? I guarantee the characters you remember most were not just given the ‘best’ names, but were given the names that best suited the character.
I’ll give an example of my own. Some years back, I wrote a short story called “Prom Night.” Since the story was rejected many times over and is basically going nowhere, I feel comfortable using it as my character-naming tutorial guinea pig. But first a brief summary to better understand the nature of the characters:
On the night of prom, two dateless high school juniors go to a local pool hall in hopes of finding some adventure. Girl # 1 is on a mission to make up for the fact that wasn’t invited to prom. She is abrasive, bossy, and insecure. Girl #2 is more subdued, level-headed, and actually was asked to the prom, but didn’t accept. It can be surmised by a discerning reader that Girl # 2 turned down her invitation to keep her best friend, Girl # 1, from being alone that night.
At the pool hall, the girls run into a young man (approximately aged 28) who they’ve clearly met a few times in the past. Girl # 1 and this guy have a mild flirtation going on. Girl # 2 disapproves, but generally keeps quiet, being that Girl # 1 will snap at her if she shares too many precautionary opinions.
Later in the night, the young man takes the two girls to a park. He and Girl # 1 go around a bend, and they begin to fool around. At first, Girl # 1 is a willing participant, but when she shows hesitation to go further, the young man becomes enraged at her deception of experience. He takes off, leaving both girls behind.
Girl # 1, humiliated and distraught, seeks solace in Girl #2 who has overheard part of the incident. Girl # 2 pretends like nothing happened, and miraculously Girl # 1 softens as they discuss plans for having a sleepover.
Oh chill out, I told you it got rejected about a zillion times. The plot is not the point…it’s the names. Despite the story’s flaws, I still say I picked good monikers for the characters. Here is my reasoning:
“Tina.” Otherwise known as Girl # 1. The name has sharp angles. It’s the name of a someone with extremes. The “T” sound conjures up words such as “tough,” “terrible,” and “touchy.” At the same time, it ends in an “a” giving it that eternal feminine ring. Not classically feminine per se, but certainly in spit-fire girly-girl kind of way. This attitude reflects the character to a (no pun intended) capital “Tee.”
“Carey.” Or, better yet, Girl # 2. This is an endearing, yet less remarkable name. It’s a name that’s easy to say and easy to like. It “carries” one along in a sense. It’s smooth sailing; it’s easygoing. Just like the character. It’s a good, solid name that can be easily overlooked for its wonderful simplicity. Hence, Tina doesn’t often appreciate her friend Carey’s efforts. The spelling is significant too. It says that this character is special, different…but you might have look a bit closer.
“Scott.” The young(ish) man. This is a name that’s easy for an infatuated young girl to repeat over and over again, to write in her notebooks inside giant red hearts. It’s a rather unassuming name, and in that sense, it’s essentially a clean slate. A writer could probably turn a “Scott” into any kind character she wants him to be. Here’s my thing though…it’s not exactly a little boy’s name (such as Tommy or Timmy, or in this case, Scotty) but it’s not really…a man’s name either. This is precisely this character’s agenda. He’s no kid. Twenty-eight years old with mature needs messing with a sixteen year old girl? And that being said, well, he’s no man either.
“Chompers.” He was not mentioned in the summary; mostly because he does not play a huge role in the story. In fact, I’d considered plucking him from the page, but I just couldn’t do it. He adds of touch of humor to the otherwise sad thematic premises. He is the owner of the pool hall. An older man who speaks in sentence fragments, is un-amused , yet undeterred by Tina’s nastiness that chews on toothpicks and absently reads magazines up at the counter. The girls name him for his giant, yellow veneers. It is the perfect “inside joke” for two teenage girls. They have no clue as to his actual name, so instead they name him for an unfortunate physical characteristic. FYI, it’s later revealed that his name is “Herb,” which of course Tina finds hilarious enough to make a marijuana reference as in ‘I bet he smokes a lot of Herb too’
Whatever method you use to name your characters, please note that it holds a lot more importance than you might think. In many ways, just like your children, you’re naming them for life. I’d love to hear your methods for choosing character names! Feel free to comment below.