Names are vastly important. Every time you sign your name to an e-mail, you make an impression with the words alone. Your name may be a rock-hard Western creation or a frilly French confection, but it makes an impression, whatever it is. People automatically start assigning personality traits based on their assumptions, and suddenly, they feel as though they know everything about you simply from what they’ve deduced from your name. It can be quite amusing.
They do the same thing with characters–perhaps more so than with real beings, since they can’t ever see the characters. Therefore, as writers, we have to be infinitely careful in the handles we bestow upon our darlings. And that little fact is one of the banes of my existence. Naming characters is ridiculously hard sometimes! Ridiculously! First names are one thing; those usually pop up fairly easily. My main character came about as an extension of my name (since she was originally my role-play character), the love interest was titled with my favorite English gentleman name, and one of the main secondary characters was named after a favorite literary character. Easy. But there are a lot of other elements to consider besides finding a suitable first name, and most of them are far less simple.
1. Last Names A last name can make or break a character. Most of them make a statement of some sort or another, even without jumping into the meanings behind them. Give your charrie a last name of Wayne and what comes to mind? The ultimate cowboy? A hooded crimefighter? Both strong, powerful, solid images. That’s what’s going to project onto your character. But name them something a bit less admirable…Hitler or Moriarty, for example. That’s also going to project onto the character. And unless you want them coming off as an evil psychopath, then be careful whose name you choose. Perhaps Google them before making a final decision, just to make sure there aren’t any serial killers or terrorists or otherwise disagreeable personages by the same handle.
2. Meaning Honestly, I don’t think meaning…ah…means…much. The average reader isn’t going to have the slightest inkling what “Colton” or “Cassia” mean, and I doubt they’re going to care. You don’t want to put too much stock in name meaning when choosing one for your beloved character. While it can be fun to have a private author’s joke within a name, it isn’t necessary to drive yourself nuts trying to find a name that means cheerful for your chipper character and a name meaning doubt for the skeptic and so on.
Of course, in some instances, the name–and its meaning–figure into the plot itself. If my family were ever the subject of a story, the name would kinda have to be brought up, considering how well it represents us. It means either “of the lion” or “horse thief” and no one knows which. And knowing my family, it could go either way.
Cassia Echo Rembrandt = Good
Akkjhgnbnhgnuik = Bad
4. Impressions and Irony As I said above, impressions are everything, especially for your characters. The names should match the characters and give the reader an accurate impression of who they are from the first moment. Think of the great characters of film and fiction. Hercule Poirot. His name is like reading one of the books that feature him. You can almost see the brilliant, fastidious, proud, little Belgian just by looking at his name. Indiana Jones. Definitely all- American, apparently a traveler as signified by the place name, and probably a no-nonsense chap, judging by the solid last name. See what I mean? It matters.
On the other hand, a little irony can be fun, as well. Name the roughest- toughest woman in your book Fifi or something equally ridiculous. But, personally, I think that works better with secondary characters than with your protagonists. Also, too much irony, and it begins to feel slightly absurd.
5. Nicknames These can also be useful, as well, though they obviously don’t work for some characters. While “Indy” has an even more adventurous feel than Indiana Jones, I think Hercule Poirot would fly into a utter fit if someone called him “Herc.” Whatever works for your character. Nicknames are good as a quick way to show familiarity between characters, as well as a simple way of showing if a character is a loose, casual person or an uptight soliderly type. They have a billion different uses. Experiment!
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