What’s in a name?
While watching the Mets-Giants game into the wee hours last night, I was struck by how many cool, interesting names pro athletes tend to have. On one field last night there was Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Ike Davis, John Buck, Dillon Gee, Zack Wheeler, and two guys who would be there if they weren’t out with injuries, Angel Pagan and Lucas Duda. As a writer, I could not make up names this punchy, memorable, and laden with implied character traits. It inspired me to write this post to share with all my fellow writers (or would-be writers) my approach to an often-overlooked part of the writing process: naming characters.
I spend a lot of time working on names for my characters. You think it’d be a cinch, but it’s not—and it shouldn’t be. Character names are important. They convey a lot of subtext about your character.
But first, some basics. My first rule of thumb is to use surnames that are not too common (Smith, Jones) yet recognizable and easy to pronounce (Matthews, Crawford, Brady). “Jessica Johnson” sounds fake to my ear, but “Alison Fenwick” sounds like a real person. I’ve never known a Fenwick, but I’m pretty sure they exist and I know immediately how to say it.
First names are tricky, too. Most writers err to the creative side, as if we wouldn’t relate to John or Mary, but would only be fascinated by Stryker and Jezebel. Again, I strive for a middle ground: names that aren’t too boring, but not too exotic. The lead character in my play Two Point Oh is Elliot Leeds. Perfect example of the kind of name I like my characters to sport. Easy, not-too-exotic, not run-of-the-mill either.
But that brings me to the most important part of character-naming: the subtext. Names imply certain traits. If the aforementioned John Buck was a fictional character, you can bet he wouldn’t be a wimpy accountant, but some guy dripping testosterone. But that’s almost too on-the-money (despite the fact the real-life John Buck is a power-hitting major league catcher). I read so many scripts where the characters are named “Strong” or “Goode” or “Coldheart.” Way too obvious. Some writers use names with hidden meanings (“In Swahili, it translates to ‘hero’!”), but if the meaning is hidden, how’s the audience supposed to get it? I prefer names that suggest other words by the way they sound. Hence Elliot Leeds is a pioneering visionary (he leads). Yet the “Elliot” keeps him a little bookish. (He’s a visionary computer geek). If he was the leader of a band of rebels in a post-apocalyptic world, I might name him “Jack Leeds” (simply because “Jack” sounds strong and active).
Some great famous character names that simply pulsate with the essence of their characters: Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. Walter Mitty. Sam Spade. Hannibal Lechter. Mary Poppins. Gordon Gekko. Mildred Pierce. Marge Gunderson.
Where to find inspiration for such great names? I write down words that I feel embody my character and then just free-associate words and see what comes to mind. When one of those words intersects with a known name, bingo.
Or, I watch a ball game.