Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it. – David Sedaris
A name carries some history with it. More than anything else you write, a reader will bring personal bias and knowledge based on a name. Some names are common, some are famous or infamous because of an individual or group, and some names can take you to a different place and or time. All of those issues can be researched; pick one that enhances your character. The reader will also bring their own baggage along with some names – that cannot be helped.
What image comes up when you hear Franz, Petrova, Gabriella, Degas, Edward, Obama, Siobhan, Chow, Smith, or River? Does your mind picture different nationalities, time periods, or personalities? I believe it should have. Names follow patterns of culture, time, and geography. Any number of pages exist on the internet that can help you pinpoint where a name came from, when it was popular, and if it has spread to other geographic areas.
Names become even more powerful when they happen in sets. What family do you picture with each set of names:
- Antwaun, Tomika, and Roshawna
- Star, Hope, Joy, and Leaf
- Sven and Lars
- Jeremiah, Elijah, Mary, and Elisabeth
- Hoshi, Kazue, Ume, and Yamato
Do you see different cultures? Different colors and nationalities? Different cultural viewpoints? Whether they are conservative or liberal? Can you picture what conversations at the dinner table would sound like? Carefully chosen names can save a writer hundreds of words of description by allowing the reader to use their own knowledge.
What do you think when you see Elizabeth, Elisabeth, Elizabete, Elisabet, or Liesbeth? Do you see different origins? Can you place the family history? If not, do you think you can research it? As a reader, I don’t know where every name comes from. But I don’t think twice about Elisabeth whereas I try to imagine where a name like Liesbeth comes from. Choosing the proper name can give you a head start in your description of a character.
It is very common to see names in modern literature that lack flavor. These generic names deny the character both history and personality. If you call a character Chris, he can be any of a dozen nationalities. If you call him Christian, Christopher, Christoffer, Crist, or Krystof, you give him depth. You give the reader that little taste of who he is. Then you can let his friends call him Chris throughout the story.
Let’s look at family names. Do you picture something different when you see a sign with Garrett and Winchester versus Draper and Smith? Does the first set of names feel more powerful? Why? Smith, on the second sign, is very common; it takes some of its power away. Names like Smith, Jones, Miller, or Wilson are great for generic characters, for making them hide. Also, Draper and Smith are names created from occupations. If you are creating a character of one occupation, but give him the name of another, you can be creating problems for yourself. For more information on occupational surnames, see What’s in a Name: Surnames and Occupations. However, if you want to make an impact, choose something with cultural flare.
For a character, pick a name that means something. If you are picking names for a family, pick names that naturally flow together. If you are picking a family name, especially someone that isn’t going to be developed much, give them a name that brings forward images of race, history, culture, political view points, era, and class. If you, as a writer, are going to maintain some illusion of control, you should try to work with your readers own preconceptions instead of against them.
Here is a writing challenge, develop a series of names that will help the reader see:
- A Chinese/American family during WWII
- Surfing buddies
- Russian lobsters (for children’s book)
- Irish immigrants before the civil war
- Tennessee tobacco workers in the 1969
- A French doctor