If you’re writing a novel, you’ll need to come up with names for all your characters. While you could come up with random names, ideally you want your character names to define who your character might be. When Margaret Mitchell first wrote “Gone with the Wind,” the lead character was originally named Pansy O’Hara. At the last moment, she changed the name to Scarlett O’Hara. When you have a head strong character, the name Pansy just doesn’t define that character accurately but Scarlett does.
You can flip through lists of baby names to look for names that grab you. Generally the shorter and simpler the name, the better. Just think of someone named Eldrick Tont Woods. Doesn’t create a visual image of that person, does it? Of course, Eldrick Tont Woods is the actual name of Tiger Woods, the golfer, so you can see how a simple name change can paint an entirely different picture in your mind’s eye.
In movies, names aren’t as important because movies are more of a visual medium, but in novels, names are all you have. People often forget the physical description you give a character and replace it with their own visualization of who that person might be, but a strong, definite name helps plant a strong, definite image in the reader’s mind.
Besides choosing sharp, descriptive names for your characters, make sure you don’t choose names that are too similar. If the three main characters of your story are Sue, Sam, and Suzy, those names can blur in the reader’s mind when you’d describe who is doing or saying what as the following shows:
“Let’s go for a swim,” Sue said.
“Sounds great,” Sam said.
“I’d rather go home,” Suzy said.
When each character’s name begins with the same letter, the names tend to blur into one. Ideally, you not only want different letters to start each name, but also different name lengths such as Sue for one character and Jonathan for a second. The different first letters and the different lengths help make it easier to determine which character the reader should visualize.
Often times names can be subtle ways to describe the character’s fate. In “Star Wars,” Luke’s last name is Skywalker, which creates a noble image. Imagine if Luke’s last name had been Wozinski. Luke Wozinski creates an entirely different image than Luke Skywalker. However, Luke Wozinski would be a far better name if your story revolved around immigrants coming to America.
So the general lesson is take time and thought in naming your characters. Try different names until you find a name that sounds just right for your character. Short names tend to be easier to remember such as James Bond. Long names are often better for secondary characters to subtly describe who they are such as Harry Milquetoast. There’s a huge difference between a woman named Candice and a woman who calls herself Candy. Candice sounds respectable and professional. Candy sounds more like a flaky blonde bimbo.
Names are simply another way to make your characters pop out from the page and create a visual image for the reader. A vague name will create a vague picture in the reader’s mind. A strong name will create a strong image in the reader’s mind. Make your character names memorable and that will go a long way towards making your story memorable as well.