Characters – Part 1: What’s in a Name?

When creating characters, how deep to you go in constructing who they are?  Do you just name them, offer a basic description, and away you go, often only really finding out about them as your write?  Or do you look to create as many layers as possible, wanting to intimately know your character before you set them in motion?

There’s no hard and fast rules on how to create a character the way there would be in creating an actual human being.  But unlike creating a human being, you can pre-plan every detail about your character … although some might find once they’ve set their character in motion, they’ll take on a life of their own and do something wholly unanticipated.

We’re going to run a series of blogs on character creation, looking at different aspects of character.


Part 1: What’s in a Name?
Yes, this would seem basic enough.  Just name the character Joe Blow, and there you are.

However, I’ve always thought that names help define people.  More than that, they characterise people.  Think about the people you know.  How many are there who share the same name?  Do they share similar characteristics?  I once had three different friends with the same name and while they were good guys, they were all annoying.  (I won’t mention what name it was.)

Jerry Seinfeld had a comic bit that if you named your kid ‘Jeeves’ you were pretty much mapping out his vocation (as a butler).  Names are defining.  We see that often in stories, where tough characters are given tough names and geeks are given names considered stereotypically geeky.

So how do we find the names we want?

I have several books of Baby Names which’ll I go through, trying to find names that will fit my characters.  Seeing the definitions behind names is also useful.  It mightn’t (and in all likelihood won’t) play a factor in the story itself, but it does add texture to a character.

Similarly, I have folders and folders containing surnames, which I’ve broken down by nationality.  Some also have definitions.  (Surnames can easily be Googled, i.e. ‘Most popular surnames’, or throw a nationality into the search also to get a specific list of surnames.)

Then I’ll write all the possibilities down in a notebook – Christian names in one column, surnames in the other.  What follows is simply a case of what sounds good (to me) and what I think fits the character.  Is he a Jack or is he a Robert?  Robert Harmon might have a nice ring for my purposes, whereas Jack Harmon doesn’t.

Something else to consider are the range of names you employ, so I’ll also write out the alphabet on a page.  When I find a name I want to use, I’ll strike out the letter it begins with and will then try not to use another name beginning with this letter.  This helps avoid too many similar sounding names, e.g. Jack, Joel, James.  You might be able to keep them all clear in your head, but readers might lose track of who’s who if too many characters have similar names, (unless, for some reason, there’s a point to making the names sounding similar, e.g. like Christopher Nolan’s film Memento).

From there, it’s a case of how that name is employed.  For instance, how would Robert Harmon like to be addressed?  As Rob?  Bob?  Bobby?  Bert?  Or even Harm?  Perhaps his boss calls him ‘Robert’ (implying a formal relationship), his wife calls him ‘Rob’ (which is much more familiar), whereas his brother calls him ‘Bobby’ (much more informal).

There’s so much that can be done with a simple name, and the choices we make tells us so much (more) about our characters.

Finally, names are often our first impression of a character, and the way we’ll start to shape of visualisation of them in our heads, so it’s important we get the name which are just right.