The Secret to Naming Characters

BowersThumbby John Bowers

Writing fiction is hard work, but it’s also fun. As a writer you get to create everything, from the world in which your characters live to the characters themselves. You get to determine whether they live or die. But sometimes writing can be daunting; for example, giving your characters a name. How, exactly, does that work?

It could be very easy, of course, if you don’t mind using the same old names as everyone else. You could call your character Dick and his girlfriend Jane, but doing that might kill your chances at a sale before anyone read past the names. If you want your characters to be memorable, you need to give them names to remember. But with millions of novels out there, and ten times as many characters, how do you find such a name that hasn’t already been used?

Chances are that you won’t, but names, like titles, can’t be copyrighted, so you have total freedom to name your characters anything you like. If you’re writing romance, you’ll probably shoot for trendy names like Kyle, Paige, Derek, and Summer. If you’re writing westerns you might look for macho names like Luke, Slade, and Shorty. If you prefer science fiction, then such names as Luke Skywalker and Lucky Starr are sure winners.

Of course, those have already been used, and no reputable publisher would let you get away with using them again.

Names with Character

If you’re going to create a memorable character, you should try to give him a name with character. Famous science fiction author Ben Bova suggests that you should try to name your character something that describes what he does, but I don’t necessarily agree. Everybody has heard of detective Peter Gunn (erotic symbolism, anyone?) and detective Mike Hammer (a strong-arm type), and they were both successful in their time; but British author Ian Fleming chose to name his famous spy James Bond — simply because it sounded so ordinary.

(Of course, the very words “Bond — James Bond” now elicits a flush of adrenaline in the blood, but back in 1951 it wasn’t so. Thank you, Hollywood, for defeating Mr. Fleming’s purpose.)

I find that creating a memorable name is as easy as making it unusually complex. Thirty years ago I wrote a baseball novel in which I named the team’s owner Joseph Argus, Jr. His secretary, a minor character, was Victory Estelle Waterbury. That novel never saw publication, but I think those names would have stuck.

I used the same formula years later in the Fighter Queen series; one of the primary characters was a defense contractor named Oliver Lincoln III. There’s something about stringing all those syllables together that helps it stick in your mind, and suggests someone more important than the common man. (Think of James Earl Jones, Cuba Gooding Junior, or Barack Hussein Obama. Whether you love them or hate them, those names evoke character.)

So far we’ve been talking about the good guys. But villains, too, need to be memorable. Who can forget Darth Vader, or Ernst Stavro Blofeld? They weren’t just bad guys, they were larger than life, and it took a powerful protagonist to bring them down — or at least thwart their plans. You could name your bad guy Doctor Evil or Cruella deVille, but that’s cartoon stuff. A really scary bad guy is the boy next door who blends into the crowd, like Kevin Spacey in the movie Seven, whose name might be something as simple and innocuous as John Bowers.

Beware of Subliminals

As writers, we are readers first. We devour fiction, both books and movies. Along the way we pick up things that stick in our subconscious; that isn’t always a bad thing, because what we read waters our imagination, but it can also pose a risk now and then. I was halfway through the fourth book in the Fighter Queen saga when I realized that I had subconsciously named two of my characters after one created by Robert Heinlein. The protagonist in Starship Troopers (my all-time favorite Heinlein novel) was Johnny Rico. I had named one of my characters Johnny Lincoln and another Rico Martinez. Subliminal? I’m not sure, but probably. I liked the names, so I kept them.

Naming characters can be a challenge. You can run out of names pretty quick when your story is sprinkled with lots of faces. I’ve started using the names of real people in my stories, especially for secondary or throw-away characters. My family moved frequently when I was growing up, and I remember dozens of names of kids I went to school with. I use those name without reservation; most of them are quite ordinary and none of those people remember me anyway, so they are unlikely to complain if their names show up in one of my novels.

For primary characters, though, I try for more memorable names. There’s nothing unique about a Rico Martinez or a Jack Hinds, but they do stick in your mind. In Star Marine, I have three protagonists – Rico Martinez, Regina Wells, and Wade Palmer. None of those names is fanciful, but they are, I think, memorable. Two secondary characters have more exotic names – Scarlett Wallace is a Sirian belle caught up in a web of interstellar intrigue, and Carla Ferracci is a battle surgeon assigned to a ResQMed in the Federation fleet. And for a touch of humor, there are four Star Marines who call themselves Texas, Tiny, Maniac, and Gearloose. (And for you fans of the first three novels, Onja Kvoorik is back!)

Have Fun

The business of writing can be hard work, but it’s also rewarding. Whether you ever make a dime selling your fiction, have fun! You write primarily for yourself, and if you don’t enjoy what you’ve created, neither will anyone else.  Name  your characters whatever you want, but make them memorable.

And give them character.

John Bowers is a very prolific science fiction author. His first published science fiction novel, A Vow to Sophia, became a 5-story series called The Fighter Queen Saga. He then published the 3-book Nick Walker, UF Marshal series followed by the 5-part Starport series.

He’s also published a mid-grade novel, Joseph Lexxus and the Drug Runners of Altair.

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