Coming up with character names is one of the most important things I do as a writer. A bad name – one that doesn’t fit the character or is hard to pronounce – can really put a dent in the story.
Names, in novels, must be carefully considered because they imply a lot about the character. Hannibal Lecter, for example. Would he be as scary if he’d been named, say, Bob Weathersby? The very name Hannibal Lecter goes a long way towards helping me envision a psychotic psychiatrist who kills and eats his patients. Hannibal the Cannibal. How perfect is that?
Harry Potter is also a great name. First, because it’s very British, and second, because the name itself is so wonderfully unassuming. It’s ordinary. A character named Harry Potter isn’t going to be 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds of hard muscle with the face of a Greek god (like you, Steve Hillier). A name like Harry Potter is going to conjure up images of an average Joe good guy, which is exactly what Rowling’s character is.
And Bella Swan. Need I say more, Twilighters?
I always have a really hard time coming up with names for my characters, and they tend to change multiple times over the course of the first draft. Ethan, for instance, was called two other names before I finally committed to this one, and I think it fits. But you know what I do to come up with names for minor characters?
I look in the phone book.
I keep the white pages on my bookshelf, and when I need a name – usually a last name, those are the hardest to pull out of thin air – I open the phone book and just… pick one. Kinda lame, but it works.
Though there is a certain general criteria I adhere to. Obviously, the name must fit the character’s overall description. Sheila Tao is Chinese. I don’t know why she’s Chinese, but she is (maybe subconsciously I felt that Asians were underrepresented in commercial fiction when I created her), so she can’t really be named Sheila Connors. Or Sheila Ziminski. Wouldn’t fit, unless I want to explain how it’s her married name, blah blah blah (yeah, welcome to my life).
I also look for names that are easy to pronounce. We all have an inner narrator who speaks as we’re reading, and the last thing I want to do is trip you up by calling a character something that doesn’t roll off the tongue. Like Saoirse, for instance. This is a Gaelic name, and oh so pretty to look at, but how the hell do you say it? (I had to look it up—it’s pronounced “seer-sha”.) Yeah, not a good book name.
Lastly, I like names that are slightly metaphorical (when appropriate, of course). A highly trained spy who loses his memory and has to start his life over again, while coming to grips with the man he used to be? Of course he’s Jason Bourne. I can’t think of a more fitting name.
Shakespeare says, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”