What’s in a name? (Blatantly ripping off Shakespeare here).
Well a whole lot if you’re a writer. A character’s name conjures up a powerful image in a reader’s mind. And quite often, an immediate, visceral reaction. Ebenezer Scrooge anyone? Sounds like a guy you definitely wouldn’t want to spoon with.
To me, Charles Dickens was the master at naming his characters. Case in point: the jolly Polly Toodle in Dombey and Son. Uriah Heep, from David Copperfield, was a real slime-bucket. And don’t get me started on Oliver Twist: with names like Mr. Bumble and Mrs. Sowerberry, you know right away they’ll probably offer a few swift kicks to the poor young orphan instead of a second helping of gruel.
As writers, it’s often no easy task to come up with the perfect name for your character. Even Lee Child admitted “the most difficult thing for me in writing is coming up with character names. Usually when I’m searching for a name I look around my office until I see the name of an author, or a brand of stationery, that works.” It’s hard to believe Child wrote Killing Floor without his main character’s name in mind. Child’s muse in this case? His wife. The once-aspiring novelist now insanely popular bestseller had just lost his broadcast job, and his wife joked that he could always find work as a grocery store “reacher” (Child, a tall fella at 6’5, could definitely help a little old lady retrieve a box of chamomile tea from a high shelf). Hence, the mega-mighty and awesomely-powerful Jack Reacher was born.
My personal favorite character is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, named after the famous Dutch painter, Hieronymus Bosch. Harry Bosch sounds like a tough guy with just a hint of mystery and a sliver of internal darkness, a perfect mirror for this loner L.A. detective. But imagine for a moment if Connelly decided to go with Vinny Van Gough instead. Yikes. Talk about cringe-worthy.
Writer’s Digest recently posted a helpful blog on the seven rules for picking names of fictional characters that offers writers some good pointers on this topic.
But recent research also offers a few tips. If your heroine is a hotshot lawyer, then you might want to think about naming her Cameron as opposed to Isabella. A U.S. study found women with male or gender-neutral names are more successful lawyers and judges than those with more traditional, feminine names.
Is your character a brilliant scientist? Another study found girls with very feminine names were less likely to study higher levels of math and science than girls with less feminine names. Think Temperance Brennan (aka Bones) and Kay Scarpetta. These gals are tough cookies and crazy smart.
Names have always intrigued me, whether the people who go by them are real or live only in the pages of a book. My mother gave me the middle name of Eyre (and the first name of Jane—yes, my mother REALLY loved books). I brooded over the indignity all the way to high school. It was then that I read the first book that really moved me, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (Tom Joad-talk about a great character name!). And so I realized Jane Eyre wasn’t a lifelong albatross after all. It was actually kind of cool.
If you have a favorite literary character’s name or a method to your madness in naming your characters, I’d love to hear about it. Please share it with me here or on Twitter.