Naming characters is important.
Not just because if you didn’t, you’d have to keep referring to them as ‘that woman’ or ‘that man’…
It’s important because a name can be used to help conjure an image, project who they are. You have the luxury that parents don’t have: you know what they’re like already and can pick a name that suits them.
A character’s name may be dependent upon their culture and background, upon the era the piece is set in, it’s geographical location: all that can play a part.
But it may also just be a name that you like and sounds good.
Maybe you know of someone either in ‘real life’ or in fiction with that name and it suggests everything you want your character to be. That can of course be a double-edged sword if the character is really well-known to all, as it may bring with it associations that don’t work for your character as well as assumptions that you’ve been just plain lazy in picking a name.
So how do you do it? Where do you start?
Do you ever use place-holder names until you can come up with something that really hits the spot? Maybe until you really feel you know the character?
Is pronunciation an issue? Do you have to consider the audience you are writing for and what they will be able to easily get their head, and their tongue around?
Are you looking for a name that will stand out, that is different, but worried that it will just look like you’re being different for difference sake?
Are you writing in a genre where there are dos and don’ts for names?
And we may be talking about just the first name here, but characters have last names, even if they are seldom used in the piece, never spoken by another character or written on the page – they still exist, so how do you choose those?
For me the main driver is the genre and the nature of the piece: I approach it differently for screenplays than I do for a novel. Hearing a name out-loud can be different to seeing it written down.
If it’s a ‘fantasy’ novel, then I’ll want old-world sounding names, perhaps with a basis in a real mythology. If it’s sci-fi, steampunk or dystopian future, I may go more for their tag, their nick-name than their real name.
I have a personal preference for softer sounding names, without hard edges and pronunciations and I often have to challenge myself when naming characters to ignore this.
I’m also aware that the name may be shortened by those familiar with the character, so does that work? Will anyone call Andrew ‘Andy’ or does he insist on ‘Andrew’? Does Phoebe allow ‘Feeb’?
A character’s name can help define them so I give it a lot of thought, and yeah, sometimes I use a place-holder until I really get to know them…
So how do you do it?