What we name a character can change the tone of our fiction, and make the difference between losing a reader or keeping that reader engrossed in our story.
Some authors get the inspiration for a whole short story or novel from a character name. Until they come up with a name for the protagonist, ideas about the plot are stunted.
Certainly names can set the tone for a book. That’s why I don’t recommend using names of family members, unless they truly fit the work you’re considering. In my case, the list of names would be very short, anyway. I’d have to delve way back into the clan.
Names also often reflect the era your book is set in, and the class or status of the character. Not long ago I awoke in the night and started pondering this. Should I name a woman character Margaret? Or Madge? Or Marguerite? Maybe Maggie. Mags. Marge. Midge. Margo. Marjorie. Each of these names is related to Margaret in some way, but brings to mind an entirely different woman. These can become shortcuts in character description, because most readers will jump to similar conclusions.
The names we choose can also help as we develop character descriptions. Would Marguerite own a tire store? Would Madge sell high end jewelry? Well, maybe that adds humor or just the contrast you want, but my first answer would be, “No way.” In Mustard’s Last Stand, I named my protagonist Ed Mustard. And had a hard time making him very heroic. Sure, I was going for humor, but now, as I continue the series, I find Ed to be too bland, and I think part of it is his name. Brad Mayo might have worked better!
It’s also a good idea to avoid two characters with the same name, even if one of those characters has a very minor walk-on part. Readers don’t want to be confused. Even character names that begin with the same letter or sound can be confusing, and it’s easy to avoid.
I keep a spreadsheet of the characters in each of my novels and stories. That way, I can avoid repetition. When I’m feeling particularly organized, I also include a few traits, brief descriptions and where the character makes her or his first fictional appearance in my spreadsheet.
I dream of the day I need to include character names of the real people who pay big bucks to see their names in one of my books. Until then, I’ll work to follow my own advice.
What about you? How do you name your characters? Do you start with character names or plot, theme or just a nugget of an idea when you write?