Names are a funny thing. They can say a lot about a character before you ever get to know them and can be one of the more challenging aspects of telling a story. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a generic book or seen a generic movie and couldn’t tell you the names of the main characters to save my life. And I’m obsessed with names! When I’m writing, even if it’s a short paragraph inspired by a fellow coffee shop patron two tables over, I have to have a name. And more importantly, I have to have a reason for that name. I have a hard time categorizing what it is that makes something a “good” name and that’s where you come in, reader. Work through this with me.
One naming style I admire is J.K. Rowling’s, and in my oh-so-humble opinion, J.K. Rowling is a God. No seriously. Have you visited the list of Harry Potter characters on wikipedia? There are well over 600 with first and last names, not even counting the ones with no known surnames. Some, like the vampire Blodwyn Bludd, are a little on the nose but still. This is a peripheral character mentioned less than handful of times. Even if you’ve never read the books, these are the sort of names you see and get a sense of the character almost instantly. Test: Alecto Carrow, Eloise Midgen, and Felix Summerbee. One of these character invented a “cheering charm,” one of these characters is a rat bastard Death Eater, and one is a random student with acne. None are mentioned excessively, but I’m relatively you could match up those descriptions by the sounds of the name. I could wax poetic about Harry Potter all day. Moving on.
While Rowling manages to make ridiculous names sound plausible, I’ve rarely seen other examples of name-describe-character that didn’t feel heavy handed. This brings me to a second and far more ambiguous naming-style: names that just fit. I think it’s probably more of a remark on good character building than naming. We fall in love with their character and the name follows by default. But what about perfect names on two-dimensional characters? Think of that benchmark in cinematic film-making Point Break. The main character, played deftly by Keanu Reeves, is a rough and tumble,
rookie FBI agent and former football star. His name? Johnny Utah. HOW GREAT IS THAT!? My friends and I tend to repeat that often, generally after something awesome happens. You have to say it kinda like a douchebag and as one word: Johnnyutah. When I think about it, in addition to having a superb name himself, Keanu is often given roles with awesome names. Neo. Johnny Mnemonic. Don John. Well, we can thank Shakespeare for that last one…
Maybe I just like names that flow, names where you want to say the first and last name. It’s probably a combination. I have names that translate to things in other languages, names that describe characters in a Rowling-esque fashion, I even have a character that was named after a good waiter I had the day I developed him. Although now the name just fits. 🙂
How do you name characters? I’m not (just) trolling for comments. I’m quite interested. I’m about to introduce a slew of here-to-fore unnamed characters in the second book of my series. Do you have any names you love, any Johnnyutah’s?
I leave you with this ridiculous Harry Potter name video, courtesy of Potter Puppet Pals. I will have this song stuck in my head for the rest of my life.