In many cultures, it is believed that a person’s name contains his/her essence. From a practical viewpoint, this may sound like an exaggeration, but it makes sense when we are talking about fictional names. For example, how different would it have turned out if Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes had been called Sherrinford Holmes as the author had originally planned?
Every name has different connotations for each of us because they remind us of different people; thus, it’s impossible to foresee the effect names will have on your readers. Nevertheless, here are some steps you can take to find names that best suit your characters:
1. Choose meaningful names.
Don’t choose a name just because it looks nice to you or because it was the name of your high school girlfriend. Give the name meaning, and your story will gain complexity. A dictionary of names can come in handy when it comes to baptizing (i.e. naming) your characters. You can find both digital as well as paper versions, and many of them explain each name’s origin and meaning.
2. Don’t rule out a name for its simplicity.
The fact that your characters’ names have meaning doesn’t imply they must be bizarre. Don’t discard a name for being too common. “Mary” and “John” are quite ordinary, but you can use them to highlight a character’s dullness.
3. Names are not obligatory.
Not all of the characters in your story must have a name. They can be identified by a nickname (such as “Maga” in Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch), by an external feature (like “one-eyed,” “old fellow,” “girl in the pink suit”), and/or by their job, etc.
4. Keep it simple.
Avoid long and complicated names – especially if there are many characters in your story, and try to always refer to a character in the same way. For example, if Henry is usually called “the one-eyed person,” but he also appears as “Harry” or as “Owen” (his family name). In the end, it will be difficult to know who the writer is talking about.
In the novel Crime and Punishment, every character has many different names (Rodion is also called Rodka, Rodia, Romanovich, and Raskolnikov). While reading the book, I had to make a concentrated effort to know who was who, so I finally decided to assign a letter to each of them. In this way, I translated Rodion, Rodka, or Rodia, etc. as simply “R”.
Nevertheless, unless you are Dostoyevsky, I recommend you not confuse your readers that much. If you take such a risk, they will quit reading and save their time for a different author!
5. Avoid similar names.
If you want your readers to remember who you’re talking about, avoid giving similar names to minor characters. In my novel Santa Matriusca, Fermin and Felipe were two characters whose names I mixed up. They had nothing to do with each other, but those who read my first draft also tended to confuse them. Therefore, I renamed one of them, and the problem was solved.
6. Think holistically.
Casting directors usually look for chemistry between actors. Your characters’ names should also match each other. In fact, they can even have related meanings. In the film Sex and Lucia by the Spanish director Julio Medem, there are symbols that refer to light, to the Sun, and to the Moon. The protagonists’ names – Lucia (means light in Latin), Lorenzo (Spanish colloquial for the sun), and Luna (meaning moon) – revolve around the same idea and interact as a whole.
7. Be coherent.
Names should be consistent with the characters’ circumstances, age, history (names change over time), country of origin, social stratum, parents’ ideology, etc. Think about your own name. It was conditioned by many different circumstances. If you maintain a certain logic in the names you choose, your story will be more credible.