Shakespeare said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But when you name a character, it’s almost as important as naming a baby. That poor being you’ve created is stuck for life with that moniker. You’d better choose wisely, because with babies as with books, they’ll grow up to haunt you if you did them wrong.
I’ve read many books where the names were so distracting that they detracted from my enjoyment of the novel, or where the characters had names so similar I had a tough time distinguishing them from each other. One great example of the former is the much-lauded Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. I actually liked the first book quite a bit, and read the whole series, but the names…they just bugged me throughout. My least favorite: Plutarch Heavensbee. Some others that just distracted me from enjoying the book: the main character, Katniss. No matter what I did, I kept thinking “cat piss.” Caesar Flickerman. Effie Trinket. No matter what I do, I cannot get past these names. I guess they’re memorable. It just distracted me from enjoying the story as much as I could have. But of course, Ms. Collins is probably richer than I, and has a movie deal, so who cares what I think?
In the similar names category, I go back to my old fave, George R.R. Martin. His amazingly comprehensive Song of Ice and Fire series is almost as heavily populated as the real world. So, as in the real world, there are many people with names similar to each other. The problem is, since it’s fiction and the people are not real, we have problems keeping straight which knight is fighting for which maiden, and which king is which is in the achingly detailed history. Is Raegar the name of the dragon, the ancient king, or the more recent uncle of the exotic khaleesi? Are Jorah Mormount and Jory Cassel and Jeor Mormont related, or did their parents just use the same baby name book? Why are there more than three Walter Freys? Servants Irri, Mirri, Quaithe, Quotho…And then there’s Samwell Tarly, who I keep mistaking for a hobbit.
Some authors have a special knack for names, notably Charles Dickens and J.K. Rowling (whose naming of Harry Potter peeps has been compared to Dickens’ uncanny ability to paint a character portrait with simply a surname.) Some of my favorites: Ebenezer Scrooge, Edwin Drood, Mr. Sowerberry the funeral director, M’Choakumchild, the Schoolmaster from Hard Times. (That last one is admittedly clumsy, but wow…what chutzpah. You go, Charles Dickens.) From Rowling we get Rita Skeeter, Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape, the Weasleys, Mad-Eye Moody, Sirius Black, Bellatrix LaStrange, Draco Malfoy, Lupin, Tonks. The only name in the series I didn’t like was Lord Voldemort, because it was a scrambled version of Tom Marvolo Riddle. I hate scrambled names, unless they come with bacon. And now I’m hungry.
Perhaps there are reasons, known only to the authors, about name choices. With my son Noel (who is a character in his own right), his name just appeared in my head one day, and that’s also happened with characters who seem to name themselves. I rarely cruise through baby name books, although I know a lot of authors do. I did recently change a character name, although the character had clearly stated her name was Claire. I had a Carmen and a Chris, and one more ‘c’ was just too many. Now she’s Jana. Nobody’s the wiser, I think. So far, she’s written no threatening letters.
I think that we owe it to readers to make sure we are clear about who is populating our stories, and to effectively distinguish the characters we build with not only character traits but with names as well. Have you had this dilemma? How have you solved it? How do you name your characters?