Names are important tools for writers. They can be obvious or subtle indications of a character’s role in the story. They can hint at a past, a social strata, an ethnicity or a personality. They also give your reader a starting point in the story.
Disney is good at some of the obvious ones. In Beauty and the Beast the beautiful girl whose love frees the beast is named Belle. In Sleeping Beauty the evil sorceress is named Maleficent. Would the stories change if Belle was named Wanda and Maleficent was named Britney?
Maybe or maybe not.
Let’s start with someone a little less Disney-eque.
How about James?
James is a professor of literature. He has been teaching at a small university for fifteen years and is well known for his love the Romantics and can offer a quote from Lord Byron for any occasion. He is soft spoken, wears a suit and tie every day, with his concession to casual attire being a loosening of the tie. He rides his bike to campus every day and is unaware of how many of the ladies think he is dreamy and how many of the men think he might be gay. He is always invited to any faculty party, even those outside of his department as he can always be counted on to be a pleasant, undemanding guest. He moved to town fifteen years prior to take the job, has no family and spends most of his holidays alone at home. He is never called anything but James.
Does everyone know who James is? Do you have a feel for him in your mind? How he walks and talks. Can you see him as he accepts the exams from the last of his class at midterm and then retreats to his office with the stack of papers, greeting other faculty as he goes? Can you picture how he moves or even what his office looks like?
Sure, there will be grounding details to add, specific items that are either typical or atypical we might want to note for our readers as we begin to introduce plot elements (a limp a strange office keepsake), but as a preliminary sketch of a character you know who he is even if you don’t know his hair color, height and weight. Those important details can come later (or they may have already sprung to mind as you see James in your mind’s eye.)
But for now…This is James.
So let’s give James a story, or at least the start of one. James and his bike are heading across campus and he is hit by a car. He isn’t too badly damaged, we don’t want to kill him at the moment, we just want him to go to the hospital. It’s a large hospital. People are sent from all over the place to the specialist who work here. Doctors come from all over to work as the specialists the hospital is known for. (if we were to go into this story there would be a more details about the type of specialty this hospital is known for, but at the moment it doesn’t matter since our focus is on names)
James is taken in for treatment. He has a few broken bones and a minor concussion. He will have to stay overnight to make certain there is no internal bleeding. And so just as we are settling James down to deal with his injuries we hear…
“Jimmy? Is that you?”
Now we all know that Jimmy is a derivative of James, but in this story we know him as James. No one in his present life calls him Jimmy. This tells us there was a time when he wasn’t James, he was Jimmy. It also tells us that someone who knew him then is about to arrive on the scene. And who it is that says the name is going to matter as well. It’s going to affect how your reader processes this information.
“Jimmy? Is that you?” asked a small ancient looking lady asked, her voice quavering.
“Jimmy? Is that you?” asked one of the newest doctors to be hired on the hospital’s staff.
“Jimmy, is that you,” asked a happy go lucky guy holding a bouquet of roses.
“Jimmy, is that you,” asked a convict flown in from the State penitentiary for emergency surgery and chained to the bed, the guard at the door watching his every move.
Some of these people may have known him when he was too young to be known as James and was still little Jimmy from around the corner. Perhaps they knew him when he was a more casual person. Perhaps the whole point is to remind James that he once was a more casual person.
The point is they know something we don’t. What they know is going to affect the story. How James reacts to what they know is going to affect the story.
Does the little old lady know that his parents were killed by a serial killer while he hid in the attic? Did she meet him when he was sent to live with his grandmother? Is this a part of his life he never want’s mentioned and has thus buried so deeply he never thinks about it?
Does the doctor know him because they were roommates as undergrads? Does he have embarrassing stories he likes to tell as jokes that could cause James trouble at work?
Was Mr. Happy go-lucky his sworn enemy in high school?
Was “Jimmy’ once married to the convict’s sister before she ran off with a stage magician?
Whatever the reason, the name, and its change can add another dimension to the character or story or it can further the plot. It can explain motivation and actions.
Say you need a tough attorney to decide to take on a pro bono case for an environmental group. You can name the attorney Ray and as the story progress you can find out that Ray was named Rainbow at birth by his parents. You can then go with nostalgia for a reason or blackmail even if he doesn’t want his past to get out.
Names clearly aren’t the sole driving force of a character’s being, but they can be a tool for you to use. It can explain why your character is in a certain place at a certain time taking a certain action. It could also mark them as different from their surroundings.
“John Michael Morton-Smythe the Fourth, stared at the muddy ground and the paw print his companion claimed was made by a puma and knew this was no place for a germaphobic investment banker.”
They can help you set your character in a time as well.
Albina from Caesarea and Bobby-Sue Lipinski were probably not born in the same year. They probably don’t have the same background or goals. They are going to speak and act differently. Their names gives the readers some idea of what to expect from them without you saying anything. Of course, if you put Bobby-Sue Lipinski in ancient Rome, you might have some explaining to do for your readers that you might not have planned. (Although if you put Ms. Lipinski in Ancient Rome chances are you planned to lead your readers down a certain path, and are again thus helped by the name.)
Does it mean your story is going to fall apart if you go with characters whose names are unimportant to the story? Of course not. Admittedly finding names that carry no weight for the reader is hard. As I was typing this I was going to go with John Smith as a basic name. Then I realized that naming a character John Smith will almost guarantee that your readers think the name is an alias. Or he is going to have to constantly argue about his name actually being John Smith, which is going to affect his character and his relationship to other people in the story.
The point isn’t to get the name to help carry your story, it is to get you thinking about how you can use the name as a tool in your writing.
So take some time with the name and the different iterations of it you might want to use in the story. Visit on-line baby name sites. Google ‘popular Roman names for boys’. Look into the meaning of the names. Sure, in the end it might not matter that your main character’s name means ‘he who triumphs over adversity’ to anyone but you, but it might be something you can use later on, especially if you plan to put him through adversity and perhaps not let him triumph.
Names matter so make yours count.