If you are thinking that I’m about to announce something, then I am sad to disappoint. I am not having a baby. However, I am a writer. And, as a writer, I too ask this question. In fact, I probably ask it more often than soon-to-be parents. Though, I give it no less thought than they do.
The first was a discussion on SFFWorld. A member asked a question about naming and a discussion ensued.
One person’s response to this question was to discuss why they preferred the normal names. Names like Michael and Roland, Guinevere, Hope, Arthur, Elizabeth. These names are known, they have established short forms, spellings and variations. Also, those historical names like Elizabeth and Thomas make us think of specific real, historical people. In the case of the last two, Elizabeth the First of England, monarch of the Elizabethan Age, who patronized Shakespeare and whose navy destroyed the Spanish Armada. And Thomas, a disciple of Christ, also the name of the third President of the United States and lead author of the American Declaration of Independence.
Not all of us will find the same meaning in real names, but they will all mean something to us, even if it is simply the name of a friend, coworker, or the cashier at the grocery store.
The other argument I saw, the one for strange and hard to pronounce names, was not on a forum or even written down anywhere. It was a TV commercial.
The commercial featured two scenarios where the only thing that was different were the names. The setting is the bridge of a starship about to go into battle against another ship that can be seen on its view screen. The captain is on his feet and, in a deeply passionate voice, states something to the effect of “If Traelnamar wants a war, Traelnamar will have a war!” Then the scene flips and instead of Traelnamar, our villain’s name is Kevin.
Perhaps this was a commercial I saw in my sleep, because searches on YouTube aren’t producing anything. But it felt real and the point is valid. Can you see a man named Kevin commanding a spaceship, perhaps doing horrible, evil things and then going to war against the forces of goodness and law and order? I’m sorry, but I can’t.
So what is in a name? Of the two arguments above, I have to say that I actually agree with both.
For me the name of a character depends upon a number of factors. First and foremost is what I want out of their name. And that is pretty much it. However, what I want is influenced by other factors, such as the world of my story, the character’s personal cultural heritage (if they are an important character), the ease of pronunciation, and probably a dozen others that are entirely subconscious.
I’ve given characters names because they have a certain meaning, because their parents had a friend with that name and the friend was important to them. I’ve given them names because I want other characters (usually main characters) to know people of a different ethnicity or social standing. I’ve given them names because of their real world, historical importance. I’ve also picked names because I want to ‘redeem’ them in modern culture where I see them given matched to character personalities that I don’t feel are a good fit for them. And, yes, I’ve slapped letters together and called the result a name because the result sounds cool.
Three things I won’t do when naming characters are
- Give them a place holder name. Some writers assign their characters names, perhaps just a letter, and then change it later when they’ve thought about it more, learned more about the character, etc. I’ve tried that and just can’t do it. Once a name is given, that’s their name.
- Give common names. Sure, I’ll hand out the John, Jane, Mike, and Brittany, but never to main characters. It’s nothing against those names; I’ve known some wonderful people with those names. But I want my characters to be memorable, and starts with giving them a less common name.
- Give names of friends and family. I really try not to do this. I’m afraid my characters will become copies of the real people in my life, rather than establishing personalities of their own. However, this is unavoidable. Therefore, I do what I can, where I can, to keep the characters and the real people separate.
There is more. Again, most of it is probably subconscious--so much of writing is. But those are the things I know, that I’ve decided. Names fit the character, the world of the story, the mood you as the writer are trying to set.
What do you want out of your characters’ names? Do you want the normal or the unpronounceable? How do you make the choice?