T.S. Eliot wrote, “The naming of cats is a difficult matter,” and as a lifelong cat-owner, I agree — but choosing a name for a fictional character takes difficulty to a whole new level. It’s a lot like naming a child. The recipient will live with your decision forever, and if you make a mistake the consequences won’t be pretty.
A baby, of course ,is named before the parents have any idea how the kid will turn out. Will little Angelina develop into a tattooed hellion? Will Grace be a hopeless klutz? Or will their names in some way help to shape the people they become? I’m sure that somebody, somewhere, has spent a breathtaking amount of money studying such questions, but fortunately writers don’t have to wonder. We can form the characters, then give them names that suit. We can try out as many names as we like before deciding.
A character’s name has to do a lot of heavy lifting:
It should evoke personality. If a guy is always called Robert, never Bobby or even Bob, what does that say about him?
If ethnicity is important to the story, the name should convey that too. But you don’t have to call every Hispanic character Jose Gonzales. A little effort will turn up less common names that still tell the reader how to see the person.
A name can be a quick way to signal social status. I am not brave or foolish enough to reel off a list of low-class names and risk the fallout, but you know what I mean.
A name can tell us a character’s approximate age. How many toddlers do you know who are named Hortense or Archibald? How many 80-year-old women have you met who are named Britney or Morgan? The internet allows writers to search databases such as www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames (compiled from Social Security records) and www.babycenter.com/general/ to find out what a character born in a certain year might have been named. Because I prefer classic names rather than the trendy concoctions that are going to seem laughable when their owners hit middle age and beyond, I’m happy to note that Emma has been the most popular name for baby girls in the U.S. for several years. We may have Ross and Rachel on Friends to thank for this. (I have a five-year-old named Emma, but although she believes herself to be an unusually hirsute little girl, she’s actually of the feline persuasion.) All those little Emmas, though, are growing up with a nearly equal number of girls named Madison. Aiden was the top male name in 2006, followed by Jacob, Ethan, Ryan, and Matthew. What will Madison and Aiden call their children twenty-five years from now?
The classics fit people of any age, but if the first name is a common one, the last might have to do double duty to give the character distinction. Kate is one of the most common names for female protagonists in mysteries, followed closely by all the variations of Katherine/Catherine/Kathleen — Kat/Cat/Kathy/Katie/Kay. But Kate Shugak is singular, and so is Kay Scarpetta. In my new book, Disturbing the Dead, I named a lead character Tom Bridger, pairing a first name that conveys a solid, down-to-earth personality with a last name that is common among Melungeons in the Appalachians. The name Bridger is also a metaphor for the position that Tom, a half-Melungeon deputy sheriff, occupies between two segments of his mountain community. The reader may never think about this, but I have.
Sometimes a perfect name comes to a writer through sheer serendipity. When Tess Gerritsen was writing a book titled The Surgeon, she contributed to a charity auction by allowing a reader to purchase naming rights for a minor character, a female medical examiner. The reader named Dr. Maura Isles after a real person. The character grew in importance in subsequent books, and she grew into her name, which perfectly conveys the image of an elegant woman who is isolated within herself.
While searching for the perfect monikers for our characters, writers have to keep some no-no’s in mind: nothing that is impossible for the reader to pronounce; no two names starting with the same letter, lest the poor reader become confused; as few nicknames as possible, again to avoid confusion. Short, one-word names always have the edge, at least in English-language crime fiction. Look at a few U.S., Canadian, and British mystery novels. How many names of more than two or three syllables do you see? How many truly unusual names do you see? You could say this is laziness on the part of writers who don’t want to type long or difficult names again and again, and you might be half-right, but it’s also true that a mystery seems to move faster if everyone has a short, easy name.
A name is the most personal thing about a character. The choice is not one the writer makes lightly.