You know you’ve found the right name for a character when you speak that name aloud and the character shouts: ‘Hey! That’s me!’
In The Road by Cormac McCarthy, the protagonists are a man and his boy, both unnamed. In this case, the lack of names makes the characters and the message they convey more powerful, and it goes well with the setting of the story, a postapocalyptic world affected by an unknown cataclysm.
But most main characters do need names.
Harry Potter, probably the most popular character in contemporary literature, carries a rather dull name doesn’t he? But I think it’s the commonness and the simplicity of the name that made it so popular. And today it means so much… I think Harry Potter is a good proof that the character makes the name, and not the name the character.
I don’t like names like John Smith or Jonathan Brown that you find in books where the protagonist is a writer. I understand this helps the average reader get more easily into the skin of the character but still… There should be a little magic in a character’s name. I don’t like the overdone names you sometimes find in fantasy literature either. Tolkien used great names though… Frodo, Bilbo, and especially Gandalf.
Names in My Story
The main characters in my first novel are named thus:
- Oliver Colors (a moonbeamed painter)
- Lady Katherine Frost (an icy arts patron)
I’ve had the names before I began writing the story. I found them inside me and when I spoke them aloud the characters answered to them. The first names are common, the surnames revelatory. I like that his name begins with a vowel, and hers with a consonant.
For a long time I thought about not giving names to secondary characters, and refer to them only as…
- the dignified old steward
- the girl with carroty hair
- the bear-like man
But this turned out to be a little clumsy, and besides, I grew fond of these characters. So I found names for them:
But the names of the main characters should come naturally, from within, because that ensures they have roots inside you, which I think is crucial to creating believable characters.
In the end, it’s the personality of the character that imbues the name with magic. Just think of Harry Potter… It’s the dullest name in the world, and yet, it’s so charming!
How do you choose names for your characters?