Character names are important. Personally, I just can’t read a book if I have no clue how to pronounce the protagonist’s name. Likewise if it’s something ridiculously stupid — but that’s subjective. Minor characters names are less crucial than your hero/heroine of course, but if you make them throwaway names you run the risk of characters running together in your readers’ minds. How many thrillers have you read with dozens of FBI agents or cops or scientists that you can’t keep straight?
My first novel was about a young woman who drops out of college in Seattle and moves to New York City to work as an au pair. A friend of mine who read an early draft told me that her last name–West– was a bit obvious and corny being that she was the girl from out west. I kept her name, but never forgot the feedback, and I’m still a teeny bit embarrassed by it.
If you’re basing characters on real people it can be tempting to name them something close to the original: Jack instead of Jake for example. Or having the character and their inspiration share initials. Be careful doing this. Someday you may want to deny that your character is based on a real person, and being clever with initials or sound-alike names could bite you in the ass.
First names carry a lot of societal and cultural associations. You can use those to your advantage, or turn them on their ear. A hit man named Toby. Is that clever or stupid? Or a stripper named Edith. Unless you’re James Joyce (and you aren’t) your job as a writer is to disappear behind the story. Every time something jars your reader out of the flow of the world and story you’ve created you fail. So don’t be clever; don’t be obnoxious with names.
The way I’m naming characters in my current novel has been a mix of inspiration, trial and error and crowd sourcing. I mentioned in my last post tweeting that I needed a name for a “semi-douchey marketing guy”. My detective’s name came to me as I was driving home from the grocery store. Unfortunately, his first name is one I’ve always hated. I kept it for two whole chapters because 98% of the time I think if the Muse delivers something to you, you should shut up and be grateful. But I just couldn’t type that hated name one more time and I changed it. So far I have not been punished for this.
One of my characters is mostly based on a real friend of mine, but she’s got some characteristics of a couple of other friends too. The name I wanted to use for her is the name of her sister that passed away suddenly and very tragically at age 35. I asked my friend if it would make her sad to use her sister’s name, and she is allowing me to use it. In this sort of circumstance I would advise getting permission.
For surnames of secondary characters I’ve been hitting “random article” on Wikipedia until I get an article on a person. Then if it’s appropriate ethnically (ie I wouldn’t give a Hispanic character the last name “Chang”), I do a Google search on the first and last name to make sure it doesn’t belong to someone famous. It’s going to belong to someone or a dozen someones–that’s pretty much unavoidable–but as long as it isn’t someone that Joe Schmoe reader associates with someone prominent, I consider that a green light.
I noticed, about halfway through my current novel that all the male characters have one-syllable names. I’m not sure this is something that readers would notice and pull them out of a story-fugue, but I’VE noticed it and now it bugs me.
I used to use a baby name book when writing short stories, but found I got too caught up in the name meanings and popularity rankings, so I’ve given up on those for now.
In my opinion, you’ll remember a character’s name if the character is memorable. So leave the stupid “unique” names for your offspring 🙂