I’ve heard all kinds of advice about names in fiction. Some say you should really think it over before you chose a character’s name; others just suggest that you make the name believable and pronounceable. I think most of us have grown out of needing a Dickensian hit-you-over-the-head name like jilted sweetheart Rosa Bud from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, of course.
What makes a good character name, though?
I’ll admit that I don’t think too much about it. Just enough to make sure the name fits the character I have in mind. I go with the sound of the name and the mood of the character. Alec Poe’s name came to me when I wanted someone whose family was part of the collegiate crowd, and yet doesn’t quite fit his personality due to him being adopted. Caren Johnson’s name was chosen because I wanted her to have a simple name despite her very important fate, to the point that I spelled her name with a C instead of an K.
Back when I was first trying out this whole writing gig, I didn’t even go that far; I just picked names of people I knew. I knew three Scotts in junior high and used that as the Infamous War Novel’s central character. I knew a few Stephens in high school and used that for Belief in Fate. [‘Stephen’ became my go-to placeholder name for a lot of my stories at the time, especially around 1986 when I found it was Morrissey’s first name.] Come to think of it, I knew absolutely no Simons, and that was probably my first not-based-on-anyone character, again in BiF. I used Simon again with my anti-me Murph character (his full name is Simon Murphy — yes, it is in fact the same character who gets a cameo in The Persistence of Memories!), getting ‘Murph’ from the nickname of one of my managers at the college library.
It really wasn’t until 1993 when I started writing science fiction that I actually started focusing on choosing the right name, going just a slight bit further than just ‘because it sounds good’. The characters in the original Vigil story were newer and better names for older IWN characters. Most of the names in True Faith were chosen for a specific reason: there’s a family whose full names are all two syllables and the first name has double vowels; another family’s first names were only a single syllable and contained either O’s or A’s.
That’s when I realized that naming conventions could be used as a way to describe a family’s culture. I could have a bit of fun with them by briefly telling the reader about the character’s background without actually having to do an infodump. [There is a reason why the Shalei name is so prevalent in the trilogy: it’s an extremely common Meraladian clan name like the Vietnamese ‘Nguyen’ or the English ‘Smith’. It’s meant to show that they are the largest Meraladian clan in this story’s world, even if they aren’t all closely related.]
Since then I’ve stayed with my own naming conventions, especially with the new projects. There are a few characters named after the person or character that inspired them, and there are a few whose name fit their background. I still don’t linger all that long on finding the best one, just one that rings true to who they are and what they’re about. I’ve expanded over the years to include more names from different countries and cultures as well.
Do I have a list of names I’d like to use? Sure I do! It’s in my head, of course…one of those ‘I should use that somewhere’ lists that come up whenever I’m reading or watching something. I own a few baby name books and name-meaning books as well. I don’t think I’ve ever used a name specifically because it means anything, though. More that I’ll use it backwards; a character I’ve already named might have some secondary or minor traits that fit in with said meaning, just to expand on their background. Either way, it’s a necessary part of the writing process, and I’ve come to have fun with it.
And now I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve used the word ‘name’ so many times in this post it sounds like a silly sound effect in my head. :p