I don’t have a magic potion for selecting a character name. Sometimes the name just arrives. Other times, it’s a hard search. I may have to give the character a temporary name for a while as I push ahead in the story. It takes time to get to know a protagonist or villain or sidekick character. No exact science here, just patience and pondering.
Some writers have found truly effective names. During a luncheon a few years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing author Vince Flynn explore this quandary of finding a good name for a strong protagonist.
He decided the first and last name would be one syllable each. He wanted the name to hit like a punch and, to illustrate, he twice struck his fist in his palm. He found the impact he wanted in the character name Mitch Rapp. Punch. Punch. Mitch Rapp. Perfect for an undercover CIA counter-terrorism agent who pushes the limits.
Another character name I like is in author Andy Weir’s book The Martian. Astronaut Mark Watney finds himself injured and stranded on Mars. The name Mark is one syllable and strong. Again and again he finds ways to beat the odds to survive and make his mark.
The name Watney reminds me of someone saying, “What? What the heck just happened? I’m stranded on Mars.” As in, What-ney? (I know, perhaps a bit of a stretch.) The name Watney also reminds me of kids taunting one another and chanting “Wat-ney, Wat-ney.” However, in this case, the taunter is Mars.
Yet another character name I like comes from author Michael Connelly. His protagonist carries the name Harry Bosch. The character’s birth name is Hieronymus Bosch and he’s a Los Angeles Police Department detective. Hieronymus is quite a moniker to carry around. Harry is an obvious derivation. The name Harry is close and accessible. Bosch is hard and distant.
In history, Hieronymus Bosch was a Dutch painter who portrayed humanity’s fears and desires. A famous work is The Garden of Earthly Delights. Another is called Hell. I find this name is a nice touch for a talented, brooding detective who must analyze motive and intent and descend into a hellish, criminal world.
In my own work I found a name I had fun with. I chose the name Jingo Sparks for the protagonist in the short story “Not Even Gloria” which was published in The Sun Runner Magazine. The name illustrates his personality.
Jingo is kind of a ne’er do well, kind of “jingo-ing” about town in need of money to support a high maintenance girlfriend. Impulsive, he sparks activity when he hangs out in a local bar and instigates a high stakes game of pool.
A character name may be fluid for a period of time. But taking a cue from the authors above, there are various ways to approach the name game. We can look to
- syllable count
- a name to create an effect
- a name that enforces character traits and personality
- lists of names on the internet
- I also like the ideas of Andre Cruz on this website, The Write Life. (See number two on his list.)
And can you tell that when I read to relax, I choose mystery, action, adventure, and, once in a while, science fiction? Happy name hunting!