Mar 242013
Naming fictional characters

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” ∼William Shakespeare
How do writers choose names for their fictional characters? Are the names obvious when they create the characters? Do the writers pour over the meanings of names in books or on websites? Do they randomly select a name?
Names are important. Ask any expectant parent. My own daughter was two days old before my husband and I finally selected a name. The choice was difficult.
Elmore Leonard said: “Names are terribly important. I spend forever coming up with names. Sometimes a character doesn’t work until I change his name. In ‘Bandits’, Frank Matusi didn’t work. I changed him to Jack Delaney and suddenly he opened up.”

Names need to suit the character, the era, and the setting. If Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind” had been named John Dawson, would he have uttered the famous words, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”?  Can you imagine finding a Paige or a Lexi in a Jane Austen book? Could Heathcliff have lived anywhere other than the moors?

In her book Write Away, Elizabeth George speaks about naming the character Alexander Stone in “In The Presence of the Enemy”. She’d originally named him Leo Swann and sat at her screen for twenty minutes, unable to write a thing about him. The character was to be a tough, successful entrepreneur who grew up in a working class family, a no-nonsense type of person. When she changed his name to Alexander Stone, she could work with him.

I had a similar experience recently on a story I’ve just started on. I’d written a small amount and became stuck. I realized the character didn’t feel alive to me. I changed her name and was able to move on. I’ve subsequently changed her name one more time. I think I may have it right now.

A rose may be a rose by any other name, but a Frank is not a Jack, and a Leo is not an Alexander.
What literary character do you think particularly fit his or her name? Is there a literary character’s name you have a hard time reconciling with the character?

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