Writers choose character names with care, names that suit the fictional people they create. The process may be easy. Or not. Sometimes a name just comes to mind, ready for use. Or a name is one the writer has had on the back burner, waiting. Other times choosing a name is a search, a process of trial and error, a solo brainstorming session.
Authors past and present have left a rich legacy of character names. Margaret Mitchell decided on the name Scarlett for her heroine in Gone with the Wind. First, she’d chosen the name Pansy. For the male protagonist, she chose the name Rhett Butler.
Mitchell chose regional names to fit the southern Civil War setting as well as drawing on her own background. Perhaps other associations came into play. Scarlett can be associated with red, with fire, with passion. The name Rhett is manly, macho.
Vince Flynn gave us CIA operative Mitch Rapp. Each part of the name is one syllable and comes on strong. Mitch Rapp.
Lee Child created Jack Reacher, a former Army Military Police officer. Jack is one syllable and strong, and the name Reacher seems to say, “I’ll find you wherever you are.”
Ken Follett in The Hammer of Eden brought two hippie characters to life. Priest is the cult leader, friendly and manipulative. Star, who once was a minor celebrity, is his companion. Their names suit them.
Kathryn Stockett in The Help gave her characters names that helped put the reader into the 1960’s south. Aibileen, Minny, Skeeter. Mae Mobley, Miss Hilly, Miss Leefolt.
Edgar Allen Poe named his “hero” Prince Prospero in the short story The Masque of the Red Death. One would think a prosperous prince could protect himself from the plague.
Elizabeth George created a diabolical character in What Came Before He Shot Her. “Blade” is a villain who is handy with a knife and skilled in the use of psychological cruelty that cuts deeply.
A character’s name has a subliminal effect on the reader, adding deeper dimensions and meanings. Readers also bring their own background and knowledge and associations to a name.
Character names can reflect a locale, a profession or trade, physical strength or weakness, a period in history, a character trait or quirk, a place in society, a physical characteristic. A character name can also make a good book title. Lolita, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Sarah’s Key.
In my own work, if a name isn’t forthcoming, I’ll drop in a name to keep on writing. As the character and story develop, a name starts to take shape. The name Bingo Jackson appeared to me halfway through the writing of the short story “Bingo and the Gown.”
Or I might name a character and as things progress, I find the name is all wrong and I’ll change it. I have a character who began as Pearl, became Ginny, then Gramma Jen, and will change again. I keep discovering things about her.
A name may come easily, like Gloria. She’s wide-eyed, but conniving, in my story “Not Even Gloria.” Or like Billy and Tommy, two innocent southern boys in my story “The First of the Season.”
There are many places to search out names. The internet has sites that list names by sex, historical period, locale, country. The phone book is another source.
A character’s name may be discovered just the way it’s wanted or one name may trigger another. I pay attention to names in whatever I’m reading or listening to or when I meet someone. You just never know.
The following is a quote by the character Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, Act 3 scene 3. Iago … a satisfying name for a villain.
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls …
Although Iago is speaking about reputation, the words can also ring true for naming characters … choosing names that enrich, reveal, and fit the character … and the story.