One of the few hang ups I have when it comes to writing is deciding on character names. I don’t know what it is, but I can find myself spending more time trying to determine the best names than I do actually writing the story. I know, I know…I should seek help.
I’m not a big proponent of character names having significance. It can work in a story, but I usually find it heavy handed when an author chooses very specific names in the attempt to give the reader some hint about the character’s personality or mental state. Hell, I’ve even seen it done as a way to inject foreboding into a story. I guess I find it to be overkill. Let the story carry me along, I don’t need some fancy or cryptic name to help me understand the plot. Naming the rich female character “Fancy” or the bad guy “Brutus” is a good way to get me to toss the book in the ‘not going to read’ pile.
I’ve gotten better recently. I’m no longer spending hours scouring baby name or name origin websites. I no longer have a multi-page list of name with their meanings stored on my hard drive. That was unceremoniously purged a few years ago when I first tried to break my naming hangup. I felt much better afterwards.
What I do now is simply focus on my character and decide on a name based on who they are…if that makes sense. Of course, I usually don’t know much about my characters when I begin writing a story. I’ll have a basic idea of who they are – gender, age, maybe a general physical appearance or ethnicity – but the personality develops as I write. It’s like I’m getting to know them as the story plays out. Probably not the most efficient way to write, but it works for me.
I’d say that in most cases, I can write an entire story without having names for my characters, or if I really need to differentiate between them, I’ll use placeholder names like Bob and Jane or something generic like that. Afterwards, I’ll go back and read over the first draft to get a handle on who these people are (or creatures) and usually names will come to me. By this time I have a better image of them in my head and their personality has developed enough that I feel I know them. This is when I’ll stare at the screen and picture them in my mind, maybe watch them do things, act out scenes, interact with other characters. That’s when I feel comfortable christening them.
I’ll be honest here – I still look up names on occasion. It’s usually when one of my characters needs a non-western name. Not all of my characters are Caucasian and from the U.S. Some have been Indian, or Asian, or South American. In these cases I want to make sure I chose names that are appropriate for the character’s background. I don’t automatically decide that my protagonist for a specific story HAS to be a twenty-year-old female from Morocco. That’s just how the characters develop. As I mention above, I don’t like to have a fleshed-out character in mind when I begin writing because I want them to develop organically with the story. I may think a character is going to be a certain gender or ethnicity when I begin writing, but by the time I get to the finish line they might end up completely different.
And when it comes down to it, does the character name really matter that much? When you read a story, does it matter to you whether or not the names mean anything? Hold any significance? Does an odd name make or break a story for you? Would Tom Sawyer still resonate if he had a different name? What about Randal Flagg? How about Mowgli? Billy Pilgrim?
For me, I don’t feel it matters much unless it’s that heavy-handed approach when the author puts too much emphasis on the names having meaning. Tom Sawyer could be Igor Johannson and the story would still be powerful. Character names should be just that…names.
I don’t have kids, but I know people spend a lot of time coming up with (hopefully) appropriate names for their children. That’s understandable. Funny thing is, there are studies that show how a child’s name can influence who they become. Obviously, kids are named before they develop personalities, so naming is sort of a crap shoot. With naming characters, however, the personality is already there so finding a name should be even easier. In theory.
When it comes down to it, one could argue that names have meaning, have power. But how necessary is that in a work of fiction? Unless the story is centered on the power of names, I don’t feel they have anything to add to a story other than to maybe identify a character’s gender or ethnicity. But even then, how important is it to the story? Will the story fall apart if you chose the wrong name for a character? Probably not. As long as the writer tells a compelling story, the character names shouldn’t matter.
I’m curious what other writers think about this. Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts.