Not Just Any Name

When it comes to crafting stories, have you ever questioned just how important the names of fictional characters are? And as an author, have you ever wondered at what point you should worry about firming-up your names? Given the advent of search and replace, isn't it reasonable for authors to just defer the name decision process and deal with it later—at least until a few chapters are in the bag? Besides, do readers even really care? I mean come on, does the manner in which a name rolls off of the reader's cerebral tongue actually register at a conscious level? Isn't it more about the characters' traits, their interactions and the positive-negative charges that they encounter? Isn't that really what the reader is paying attention to?

Without a doubt, these questions are quite contrived; of course names are important to the reader. The author and the reader must connect at an emotional level in a story and characters are the binding agent that forms that writer-reader bond. Keeping this indisputable point in mind, It begs to reason that names are a key ingredient in how we as authors materialize our characters. So much so that names ultimately become powerful pointers to feelings in a way that can permanently alter the way we subconsciously perceive a respective character. For example, when you were a child, did you ever interact with another person who behaved in a way that irritated you? If yes, then I'd wager that even to this day the mere mention of that person's name brings back negative feelings and memories of some sort. The inverse is also true. Take for instance someone you really cared for as a child. Odds are you subconsciously think positive thoughts when you hear the name of a loved one, even if it's a total stranger. This is the power that we as authors can either harness, or conversely completely miss the boat on. As such, there are several aspects that should be considered when deciding names for a cast of characters.

Individuality is one such aspect where the author should enable the reader to easily draw clear mental delineations between characters in order to not only protect plot-lines and dialogue from getting tangled, but to also build an encapsulated personality. Thus, we should strive to stay away from alliteration of character names whenever possible. I aim to always have my character names start with different letters of the alphabet. This isn't always possible or practical, but I make it a goal nonetheless.

Another important aspect is complexity. If you force a reader to struggle with the pronunciation of a name then you risk triggering a frustrating experience, and that my friends is a deal breaker. Two more important aspects I'll mention (although there are many more) are name uniqueness and what I call stand-out-ability. While those are intentionally self-explanatory, I'll touch on them because it's important for us as authors to find the right balance and be judicious when it comes to using character names that really differentiate. Specifically, you want to include a conservative ratio of characters that have unique names compared to common names. As always, there are exceptions to this aspect that could be driven by story setting, era, genre, etc. One may wonder what the difference between name uniqueness and stand-out-ability is. Name uniqueness refers to how unique the name is in context of the real world, whereas stand-out-ability refers to how a name stands out in context of the story world. Again, we should be judicious here and focus more on either our protagonist or our antagonist. Less uniqueness is usually as it is more palatable to the reader and easier to digest. Alas, think of it as splashes of color, if you will. 

All in all, when we as authors include these simple aspects and consistently adhere to them, the resulting cast of characters we develop tend to have an excellent shot at becoming something truly special. To get there, these aspects should be incorporated into a name strategy that is specific to the story it supports, keeping in mind that the strategy for one story may be quite different from that of another. For instance, one story may entail using first names only while another may include an eclectic mix of full, first-only and surname characters. In all cases, a strategy should include aspects, like those previously discussed, combined with approaches. The story itself really drives the approaches and only the author can determine what the specific approaches should be. To give an example, a powerful approach may be to have one of your characters use dialog (and/or thought) to create aliases for other characters with whom there is interaction. This can be an amazing storytelling device capable of emphasizing relationships at varying depths and maturity levels.

In my novel Black Machetes, I actually built an antagonist around the character name Jessup James Boone and then had my protagonist privately give him a nickname (the Rabid Dog). This amalgamation becomes such a powerful device in the story that It helps this character become ingrained in the mind of the reader, so much so that readers are hard pressed to forget this persona or his name. True story...the Rabid Dog's best friend in Black Machetes, who was likewise a bad man, originally had a different name in early drafts. My middle son, twelve years old at the time, used to have me read him chapters as I finished them (with me skipping the inappropriate parts, of course). As the story developed, he gave me very succinct feedback by declaring, "Dad, Gary is not the right name for this character. It's not mean enough sounding." I immediately realized he was right and that realization put a huge smile on my face because something about the duo had been bugging me for days, but I was unable to objectively put my writing finger on just what the problem was.

So, together we opened up the Character Name Database that I use to track the characters for all of my stories and we scoured the list of first names until Wade popped out at us. From that point on, the name correction actually helped me to better frame scenes involving this character, both directly and indirectly. If you've read Black Machetes, then imagine if you will the villainous duo being named "Jessup and Gary" instead of "Jessup and Wade." Not near as effective, right? Likewise, the same hopefully applies to my protagonist as I'd like to think that readers would agree Ben is a proper name-fit for the good-natured role that his character played. I also hope that as my readers close their eyes and picture Ben, they associate his name not only with my descriptions, but more importantly with their own imagination that, if I did my job correctly, has been ignited by story action and fueled by emotions.

In summary, as we gain insights into the bond between character-name and emotion, it becomes easier to quantify the value that names play in telling a good story well. So, regardless of the strategies we follow for our next masterpieces, it would behoove us to remember that name planning should be an early part of the thought process as well as a key ingredient in our overall plan. And finally as an aside, I'm sharing the Character Name Database in the spirit of helping other authors tackle the ever so vital task of determining and logging the right names for the right characters. In closing, I hope you get just as much use out of this very simple spreadsheet as I do.

Happy Naming.