The Name Game
In 90% of the cases, I don’t stress much about the names of characters in my fiction. That isn’t to say that names don’t matter to me, because they do, quite a bit. They have to “fit”. Yet I have read war-stories from authors who sometimes spend a month or more of the writing/editing process determining what name to assign to any given character in their work. With all respect in the world for my comrades in authorship, this struggle eludes me. (Or perhaps I elude this struggle.)
I think one reason I don’t give myself a headache over character names is that in most cases, I don’t over-think names in terms of symbolism. If a name I like happens to reflect a concept in some subtle way, okay. But in general I won’t spend much time trying to make it do so. That is because I think symbolic character names are TNT. Properly placed they can accomplish a lot of work. Yet whereas symbolism in plot, setting, dialogue and tone can be blended into a work without showing the seams, giving a character a name that will represent or symbolize their journey or purpose in the novel can knock a reader in the face with a hammer, and I don’t usually want that.
Ever have an English teacher in school point out with a degree of awe and pride that an innocent character that died in a novel you were forced to read had the same initials as Jesus Christ? If this was done on purpose as often as Mrs. School Marm claimed, it is one of the most obvious, overused and blunt force trauma inducing cliches that has ever been perpetrated on the English language. If it isn’t true as often as claimed in the classroom it nonetheless represents the muscle tearing stretches to which English teachers are willing to subject themselves in a vain effort to astonish tenth graders.
To me, an innocent lamb to the slaughter is as likely to be named Jarod Curuthers as he is to be named Bernie Stubbenfien. Fiction may not be 100% life-like, but in life people are named what they are named, and then go on their life journey independent of what they were named.
If part of the story involves a character’s parents naming them for reasons they felt were symbolic, I can fly with that. One of the characters in my novel is named for such reasons. (Centauri.) But to try to make someone’s name seem natural and yet represent a grand theme in a novel? No thanks.
I do like to come up with memorable names sometimes, but again if it is slowing my progress, I won’t fret over that forever as some authors seem to.
I want the name to stick in everyone’s mind from the start, some say. Fine. But are all memorable people memorably named? To me, if a character is to be named something unusual or memorable the idea will come to me in fairly short order. Yet if I have been agonizing for weeks over what to call the protagonist other than the commonplace “Gary Turner” that keeps showing up in my head, chances are the character ought to be named “Gary Turner.” He may even prefer it that way. (Yes, you will find they sometimes exude a preference.)
In the end, it is about the character for me. If I have done my job you will be engaged in the nature of who my characters are, more so than what they are called.
Yet they still need names that I like.
So how do I know what to name my characters? Truth be told for some of them it doesn’t matter. I may just give them a name and have done with it. Flip on the TV, see Jack Nicholson there, and think, “Bingo. The dry-cleaner shall be called ‘Mr. Nicholson’.”
But when the name does matter a bit more I tend to start out with a cadence in mind. This character “feels” like it should have a first name with two syllables and a last name with four syllables. It’s not symbolism so much, it’s just an aspect of the language that makes me feel such a way. (Though I have no scientific explanation for why I may feel such things.)
I’ll then search my mental inventory for names that match that criteria. Friends names. Names of those I find on TV, or even in a phonebook sometimes. I’ll select a few and see how well the character “carries” them.
You know what I mean by this. I know you have seen someone named, say, Arthur, and thought to yourself, “Yeah, he looks like an Arthur all right.” Same concept here.
Once I find that fit, (sometimes having to invent a name myself in order to get that fit) I will look up the name online to see if it matches any famous person or character. If it doesn’t, I will leave it, and be done with worrying. A few hours pondering is usually all it takes, because I like a character to have a name before I begin to write them into a story.
I have nothing against people who slave over character names, as I said. I can’t say I never have. But as I have pointed out here today I don’t usually allow myself to do so, because it is the character, the setting and how they behave that needs to make the biggest impact on the reader.