Names are tricky business. The name of your story tells prospective readers a lot about it. By the same token, the way you name the characters in that story says many things about them. How you choose character names is at once complicated and simple.
Now some people might say that the name you get when you’re born doesn’t really say a whole lot about you, so why should fictional characters be named any differently?
The answer, of course, is because they are fictional characters. Fiction does aim to replicate real life to an extent, but it also aims to tell a story that evokes an emotional response from its readers. One of the biggest ways fiction connects with its readers is through its characters, and that means every aspect of the character must be chosen to maximize the reader’s reactions. That includes how the characters are named.
So what kind of things should you think about when naming characters?
First, you have to like the relationship between the character and the name. This is not exactly the same thing as liking the name you give your character, although that certainly helps. It’s entirely possible you will want to create a character who’s name is a loathsome thing because the character is not that nice (or they are nice and you want to create some irony, more on this later.) What you have to do is love what your character’s name is saying about your character.
So the next thing to do is find a name that actually says something about the character you are naming. For example, in the Project Sumter stories Teresa Herrera is a young Hispanic woman who acts as a calming, more positive foil to Helix’s sometimes cynical and always temperamental personality. Naming her after a famous, nearly sainted member of the Catholic church does a couple of things. First, the Hispanic community and Catholicism are closely linked, so it speaks to her culture. Second, it emphasizes her approach to life and highlights the contrast between her and Helix. The inverse of this would have been to give her a name that contrasted starkly with the idea of compassion and empathy, such as Ayn (for Ayn Rand.) Such a name would have been weird and highly ironic given her personality.
Be careful playing around with ironic naming, though. A character’s name is what the reader is going to see every time your character comes into the story. If the character is a big enough part of the story their name may come up so often that their name ceases to be ironic and starts putting the character at odds with itself, destroying the impact rather than enhancing it.
One way to get around this problem is nicknames or titles, ways of being identified that the character has earned through previous actions or that they have been assigned by people who know who they are. Of course, the talented people in Project Sumter’s files are a perfect example of this. Double Helix’s codename comes from his long line of ancestors who worked with the Project – the double helix being the shape of DNA and thus heredity. Likewise, the incredible stability vector shifts have results in their being named after mountain ranges, beginning with Shenandoah and continuing up through Aluchinskii Massif. Nicknames let a character have an ironic or just plain meaningless given name but still be known to the reader and other characters in a more appropriate fashion.
Finally, it sometimes helps to build the identity of your setting if you respect certain naming conventions. For example, the patronymic is an old, reliable way of coming up with last names in European cultures, so choosing to use it extensively is a good way to give a sense of cultural continuity in a story. Likewise, Project Sumter codenames tend to be abstract, chosen more to be cryptic than to be impressive, since it’s a secret government organization. This helps set a Sumter talent apart from the average superhero. Loose naming conventions like this will help build the identity of the story through the names of it’s leading characters.
Of course any story, regardless of length, benefits from having someone named Sam in it.
There’s more to naming characters than just flipping through a book of baby names or hitting up a few websites. Everything from saying the name out loud so you can hear it’s cadence and tone to considering how important a character is, and thus how awesome his name should be, goes into the process. It’s important that you like the name, that it be fairly easy to remember and that it make a good impression on your readers. But more than that, for a fiction writer, the name is powerful and has to be chosen with care. May you find the process a little easier with these things in mind.