Disclaimer before we begin: I’m not a real writer, I’ve never been published. I’m not an authority. I just have Opinions. Also, none of this applies to sci-fi or fantasy, where you can really just go crazy with names (although getting those right is a whole other post).
Names are important. The final act of Arthur Miller’s magnificent The Crucible hinges on John Proctor being unwilling, almost unable, to put his name to a confession because it would mean signing away its integrity. In the end, he chooses to hang rather than lose his name. It’s allegorical, of course, but the point stands. Names are important.
We spent ages choosing our child’s name, and I think we did a pretty good job of it. It sounds right, it has a rhythm, an orderliness to it. It sounds like a name. I think there should be no less an agonising process when naming a fictional character. OK, a background dramatis persona might not need much more thought beyond ‘Do they sound like a real person?’, but your main characters? Give it some thought, maybe even do some research.
Oh, research. Pfft. The last refuge of a procrastinator. Just think up a name! You’re creative, you know.. people… with names. Bound to come up with something convincing.
And yet, how often authors get it wrong. Names which sound.. off, somehow, not real. Is there such a thing as a clichéd name? Yes of course. Manly, heroic manly man, who is a man? Jack Two-syllables. Central character who is quirky yet relatable? Exotic Smith or Elaborate Jones. These are easy pitfalls to avoid, and ones which any critical once-over should dissuade you from making. What of the names which simply don’t sound like names, though? You’ve got to be careful. Remember the cadences of speech when you lumber them with a clumsy surname. Take care with first names. No-one is called Cuthbert these days, or Walter, or Mehitabel, not even in Kensington. It doesn’t make your character stand out, it makes them stick out, like a sore thumb.
Consider Neville Longbottom; as a name, it worked in the early Potter books because they were broad, a schoolboy fantasy where silly names were acceptable, and even worked as shorthand for the character – Neville was drippy and square, just like his name. But then the books took a turn for the darker, and Neville became a tragic hero, in parallel with Harry. Suddenly his name was a cumbrance, dragging the reader out of the moment of magical derring-do with a clunkingly comical name.
So, what to do? Know someone with a good name for a hero or, better still, a villain? Pinch it, stick it in the book. But what if they don’t like what their namesake gets up to? Chris McQuarrie tells a story about the writing of The Usual Suspects – his boss was a lawyer by the name of Keyser Sume, and McQuarrie decided that was a great name for the bad guy in his script. Eventually someone pointed out that, if the film was a success it could affect the guy’s career – ‘and for the defence – Darth Vader!’. It’s tricky. You want a name which resonates as a real-world person, but you don’t want to break the promise of that ‘any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental’ disclaimer, do you? yournotme.com is a good resource to check that either hundreds or no people share your characters name.
So what did McQuarrie do? Obviously, he changed it, picking Soze from his Hungarian phrasebook, a word meaning ‘talks too much’. This gets us into the clever-clever naming convention. Some names are deliberately chosen to give some extra layer of insight into the character. This is where the real research legwork comes in. Is there a real name which both sounds convincing and fits the person it is given to? One of those baby name books is handy (the Penguin one is very good), as they give origins and meanings of names. Look to other languages and cultures – will an English word in translation give a good surname?
Stretch beyond the first name which comes to mind. Browse the census, if you’re bored. Find old documents – the deeds to my parents’ house was a goldmine of old-fashioned names I used when creating a fictional history for a haunted house (Merrial and Theodosia, what wonderful names we are losing) – or even new ones, suitably mashed up. If you’re in an office, there will be names everywhere. Pick several, and see how they combine. Need a common name? Try the year your character would have been born in at the Baby Name Voyager. Or look at the other end of the scale for justifiably oddball names. And always, always, always, say them out loud. If you trip over them, so will your readers.
Alternatively, you could just do what Dickens did and make shit up. But to get away with that, I think you need to be, you know. Dickens. Are you Dickens?