Today, I’m pondering where character names come from. I recently read a few short stories I’d written—or started to write—a few years ago. In one story, in place of the main character’s name, I’d used GIRL. I could “see” the character, I just couldn’t “hear” her name. I never finished writing that story.
In The Brevity of Roses, the novel I just finished (ahem) writing, I have three major characters. One woman I’ve named Meredith and though I saw her clearly, I had to think for her name. The younger woman I first named Kristen because of the “type” I see when I hear it, but, except for her gender, Kristen was the opposite of the character who is now Renee. I wish I had kept a book diary because now I can’t quite remember the sequence of events that led to such a radical change in my storyline. But when the character changed, so did the name.
My third, and main, character in the novel is of middle-eastern descent. He announced his name. As I’ve said in previous posts, the core idea for this story came from a dream. No one had names in the dream. When I thought about writing a short story based on this dream, I knew I would have to have a scene where the older woman met the man. As I started to craft this scene, I used WOMAN as a name placeholder for her, but when I got to the point where I wrote the line where the man introduces himself, I heard: I am Jalal. There you go. I love the sound of it. I love the way it feels in my mouth. Unfortunately, I’ve found that it’s not so easily pronounced by some people—my sister for one. She now has my permission to simple refer to him as J.
I think it’s important to have the name “fit” the character. Most of us would instantly picture Tony Randall in The Odd Couple if we read the name Felix. And none of us is likely to name a character Oprah, Madonna, or Cher without knowing the image it would evoke—not to mention probable litigation. But we also want to avoid naming a character Kaitlyn if the story takes place during the Civil War. By the way, the U.S. Census bureau has a site to help us find popular character names by decade, year, or even state of birth.
I have a superstition about using the names of family members, or even people I know well, as character names. Obviously, that limits my choices. Sometimes I resort to the open-the-book/magazine/newspaper-and-point method … though I may have to point several times before I find a name that fits. Of course, you’ll never please every reader. To me, Meredith conjures a picture of beauty and refinement, but you might know a foul-mouthed, smelly, terror of a woman with that name. If so, I can only hope you’ll succeed in wiping that image from your mind when you read my novel.
Do you have any methods to share for choosing character names?