So you want to name a character
Naming a character can be a tricky thing. Names can be an easy way to identify a character, or to give your character some characterization without even trying.
Try this little exercise: think about a character named Bill. What does Bill look like? What color is his hair? What color is his skin? What are his hobbies? What does he do for a living? If you asked five people this question you’d find some overlapping answers. For me, Bill works in insurance in Kansas, plays golf on Saturday mornings, and barbecues with the neighbors after the game on Sunday.
What about the name Horatio? You probably think of someone who doesn’t look like Bill, or like the same thing he likes. How about the name Oksana? Again, a different idea of someone that comes with a certain shared set of features. This is basically how stereotypes work: a belief or idea about a certain type of person based on a simple idea.
To sum this up using the old television show King of the Hill: there’s a reason his name is Hank, and not Lamar.
Going against expectations
Sometimes a character is given a certain name specifically because it plays off a stereotype. In the book Confederacy of Dunces, the absolutely absurd character has an equally absurd name: Ignatius J. Reilly. If I asked you to paint a picture of someone named Ignatius, you probably wouldn’t create a character described by the author as such:
A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs.
Similarly, a character named Romeo who was not passionately in love would be another example of an author going against a stereotype for a specific effect. I would advise you to use this particular naming method with caution, as it can be obvious and induce a serious case of eye-rolling in the reader.
What rhymes with X’yzlulzq’uzk?
I have seen stories where the alien or the monster has a weird and unpronounceable name. This is good logic: something foreign to humans will probably not be named Mike or Steve, and may possess a name consisting of sounds produced by body parts we may lack. However, the reader of your story is most likely to be a human, so go ahead and make the name easy to pronounce. A reader, when presented with the name X’yzlulzq’uzk will not pause every time to sound it out, and if they do, will be so kicked out of your story they probably won’t finish it.
Don’t try to be cute
Probably the most important rule of naming characters is don’t try to be cute or clever. Naming a character who has been through two major wars, has a prosthetic limb, and a patch of over a missing eye “Lucky” is bumper sticker humor, and will probably make the editor roll her eyes until they fall out and roll under the couch. Obviously if done well, one can break any rule and still find success. I will point to the example of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Naming your main character Ender, and then having that character go on to (highlight to see spoiler!) nearly kill an entire alien species shouldn’t work. It should make you groan and throw the book at the wall, but instead it’s done so well that it’s perfect.
So, 1) don’t try to be cute, and 2) there are exceptions to every rule.
Make the name part of the character, part of your story
In Kelly Link’s story “Magic for Beginners,” the main character is named Jeremy Mars. A couple times in the story the main character talks (or thinks) about the planet Mars. How could they not? Names define us. Names remind us of those who’ve come before us, and connect us to certain ideas or objects. Of course Jeremy Mars thinks about Mars. His friends probably mention it often. Every new person he introduces himself to must comment on it. This is one way to make your character’s name an important part of your story.
Has your name ever been brought up in a conversation, or mispronounced constantly, or made fun of by other children when you were young? Your character might experience the same thing, depending on their name.
A simple rule for naming your characters
Make your character’s name simple and interesting, but unobtrusive. Probably the best example of this I’ve seen recently is the main character from The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen is a simple name, it’s easy to say, but has a memorable quality to it, because it is uncommon. It is not too cutesy and the author shows how others might make fun of the name (playing off of catnip).
Remember, simple and interesting, but unobtrusive.
What are some of your favorite character names–from your own work or that of others? Tell us in the comments.