Inventing new and convincing names for characters is something that new writers find surprisingly difficult, agonising over for hours only to scrap and start anew. Even if you have the best story ever in mind, it is one of the most important aspects of any work of fiction. If the author cannot fall in love with or be convinced and inspired by their own creation then how can the reader be? Answer: they won’t. If it doesn’t feel like it’s working then I completely agree with scrapping the name. But it shouldn’t be that hard at all. It’s where the excitement of new creation begins.
We all have names. All of our friends and everyone we meet have names. I have an unusual surname, but that doesn’t make it boring. My grandfather began to research into the history of the family name and traced it back to a French pirate, whose surname, I believe, was de Rouen – as in, of or from Rouen – the family taking the name from the village in which they lived – which has been the invention of many names. How many Dutch names can you think of that had similar prepositions as their birth? Vincent van Gogh, Ludwig van Beethoven (admittedly not Dutch, but still . . .), van Helsing, if you like (topically). Mixing two different acquaintances’ names with surname, something you find interesting or unusual, is a perfect place to start. I work part-time in shop and have frequently used names I am attracted to as the surname of a character. One day I might use yours. The same works for the names of towns or villages. Having recently driven past a signpost for a southern village, for my next novel I already know the name that I will use, requiring little or no thought at all. Just a little imagination. (It’s an awesome name for an antagonist!)
On quite a few occasions I have been asked how I came up with the name of the main character sharing the eponymous title of my debut novel (the invention of which I have written about before here and here, where you can see he was evolved from various inspirations). Because it is unusual and original it has attracted the intended interest, and a bit of intrigue – which is the tagline for the novel: Where is there to hide when everyone knows your name? But I’d like to mention a couple of the other characters too. There is Deputy Jacob Helland: being blunt, an evil bastard. His name was simple. There is a Robert Johnson song (if you’re not already aware, he’s probably the most famous blues musician of all time, and what a simply memorable name!) that is called “Hellhound on my Trail”. Can you see it yet? Hellhound becoming Helland? Not clever; simple. I love making nicknames for characters too. They’re also a great way of supplying the background or traits of a character. I don’t wish to give any spoilers away for the novel, so I have to be a little circumspect here in not saying as much as I would like. So, without background, there are a bunch of characters with nicknames, one of which is Clod Ear – all but deaf. This meant that I could use him for a comic effect in a moment of conflict. When there is a conspiracy evolving amongst characters, Clod Ear leans in and says, “Huh? What’s going on?” Yes, I know, hilarious.
Not all great names have to be clever to be effective. Take Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan for example – with lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, C.I.A. spy and U.S. President on his C.V. Two male first names. Remarkable: no. Memorable? Well, once we associate his heroics with the character, he’s portrayed in numerous box office hit films and the books are hugely successful, it most certainly is. Nothing clever about it, but it’s a hard one to forget partly because of its simplicity. Who cares about clever names when the character can save lives, right? But an example of what is a clever name is one invented by none other than Homer Simpson. Homer is watching a new cop show on telly when a character appears called Homer Simpson! At first that’s great. But soon the new Homer Simpson is revealed to be a bungling fool. Homer can’t stand the ridicule so changes his name to . . . Max Power! A brilliant name. Soon everyone wants to be friends with Max Power. With a name like that, who wouldn’t? Someone tells him that it’s a great name. And Homer/Max proudly replies, “Thanks. I got it off a hair dryer.” Absolute genius. And not irrelevant. Why can’t you name a character Dan Helix because you got it off a ruler? Or John Wall because when you write you’re looking at one?
Musicians have long been amazingly inventive when coming up with stage names. David Jones became David Bowie. John Ritchie was better known as Sid Vicious. John Mellor – Joe Strummer. Ronald Wycherley – Billy Fury (why did he change it?). And perhaps most surprisingly, Reginald Kenneth Dwight changed his name to become someone known as Elton Hercules John, which he compiled by way of two of his favourite musicians. Like Pink Floyd did. More importantly are blues singers names. Was Muddy Waters christened so by Mr and Mrs Waters? Likewise Howlin Wolf?
“Thanks for coming to parents’ evening Mr and Mrs Wolf. We need to talk about Howlin . . .”
There is even a debate about the origin of the name of the most famous person to ever walk the earth. Now, I am not about to get myself involved in a theological discussion here. It is controversial. It is not necessarily my opinion I express herein, but it is as interesting as debates come. First: there are examples of authors using the monogram of J.C. Jiminy Cricket, the wise companion of conscience. J.C. in The Green Mile, a convict on death row with mysterious powers of healing. John Connor, the boy in The Terminator who is destined to save mankind from destruction. None of these are coincidental. They are intentional and significant allegorical names to represent the characteristics and life of Jesus Christ. There is a school of belief that the name of Jesus Christ himself was used in such an expression to represent “a great man who was renowned for forgiveness and magnanimity but was betrayed and slain by his compatriots who feared that he would become their King”. That man whose life and deeds could be argued mirrored those of the story of Jesus Christ is Julius Caesar. It’s a thought of which much research has been accumulated, so cannot be ignored. Again, I am simply addressing this as another interesting observation to represent the power that a name can yield. It can be subtle. It can be simple. It can be clever. Or it can be overwhelming.
So what’s in a name? Absolutely everything.