What’s in a name? Character. When choosing a character’s name it shouldn’t be an arbitrary decision. Think back before 1997. If I named my protagonist Harry, it may have many people picturing a handsome man that is gruff maybe a cop, why? Think Dirty Harry. Fast forward to today. The name Harry has a much different feel to it. It is associated with a character in a beloved series of magical book.
Now, you may be writing the next great “Harry” but be careful. Naming our characters can also be cliche. If you write about a magical boy and name him Harry, you readers are going to expect something that you can’t deliver. You can’t deliver Harry Potter because you are not JK Rowling! You can use any name you wish, but be careful when choosing names that may build an expectation or worse, leave your readers with the impression that you are trying to ride the coattails of another author.
Names also can be very helpful in they sometimes conjure images. When I say Bertha, what do you picture? (If you know a Bertha, probably her. If you don’t it is likely that you choose an image of a heavy-set woman.)
Again we must be careful about conjuring images. If you choose a common name that is associated with bullies you may have a tough road ahead if he is a gentle, soft-spoken man. That’s not saying you can’t do it. In fact, it may be fun to try and buck the stereotype, just know you are going to have to work harder on convincing your reader of your character’s genuine nature.
When you’re naming your babies, take time to investigate the meaning of those names. Use and manipulate any common ideas or misconceptions of people with that name.
Let’s return to our name Bertha. Imagine if you were writing a scene where you were setting up a friend then you mention her name is Bertha, and immediately your friend’s face falls and becomes weary. Even after reassuring him she is pretty he still doubts it. When he goes into the bar and sees the most beautiful woman and of course she is trim, he knows he is there to meet your friend but this woman, she is so striking. He decides to ditch your friend and try and meet her. Guess who she is? Now, what fun you can have with that.
The names we choose can be very helpful especially when naming supporting characters. This is when using commonly associated traits can quickly establish a character. Additionally, if you are writing a character that is from another country, be sure to do your research. You may love the name but if you don’t know that name is tainted with characteristics opposite of what you are looking for may hinder your reader.
Think of your character’s names as you may when choosing a name for a living human being. If you have children you know that responsibility is pretty big. There is a reason there are thousands of books on naming a baby. Understand the importance of the name, but also have fun with them. Sometimes cliche is okay, sometimes it’s a stumbling block.