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When a writer tells a story, by far the most important aspect is the characters that populate the narrative. They need to be given a life of their own: they need life breathed into them. Most authors will agree that deep and intimate knowledge of each and every character is essential: an author needs to not only create, but fully understand all characters in a piece of fiction.
So labeling them with appropriate names is important. Many authors go to some length to ensure that the names they give their characters match their personalities. How can one do this without stereotyping them, or falling into the ridiculous by using sweet names for pleasant heroines and rugged labels for the baddies?
Thinking of landmark books and their characters might give an idea of what has gone before, and how the names of certain characters have stuck in the collective mind of readers: who can forget Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, and the equally memorable Rhett Butler? Even the name Robert Langdon conjures the mental impression of an earnest symbologist!
A reader would have to admit that some novelists had great knack for chosing names that went on to become household names: Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Atticus Finch, Bridget Jones, Sydney Carton, Artemis Fowl and Holden Caulfield will never be forgotten, and will always instantly fetch for us the titles of the books in which they appear.
How do authors do this? What goes into finding good memorable names that make characters in books eternal? Use of a dictionary of names is vital to many authors. There are good ones to be had. Some are simple baby-naming books that give a brief indication of the possible meaning of names and their cultural origin. Such as "Erin (female) - Irish: poetical form for Ireland, meaning 'Western island." Sometimes all an author needs is a brief and simple line like that to name an Irish character, or a woman whose mother was Irish, for example.
Sometimes the first thing that comes to mind when writing a story is the character's name, but more often, an author needs to research a protagonist's character, delve deep into the personality, and then go on a search for a good solid name that represents the aspects of the character the author wants to make spring to the mind of the reader when the name is read. The Dictionary of First Names, by Leslie Dunkling and William Gosling is one of the most popular books among authors. It not only gives meanings and cultural origins, but also dates names to when they were most popular. Essie, for example, was a popular name in the 1860s, which is great information for an author of historical fiction looking for a pet name for someone christened Esther. it gives the impression of a desire to be less grandiose than the original name, or an affectionate diminutive used by a housekeeper for a parlour maid!
It is truly amazing what atmosphere and character a name can conjure. A vision of power and strength by Maximus, a very common Roman name used by early Christians; a vision of studiousness and modesty by Crofton, an English surname often used as a first name between the wars; a vision of lighthearted glamour by Marilyn; a vision of seduction and flightiness by Salome; a vision of Jewish thrift and canniness by Reuben.
An author needs to find a good representative name as soon as they invent a character, because that name will seem to form and shape the personality, and have a lot to do with the activity, dilemmas and resolutions that need to be planned for the book's plot. Would a person called Sheree, for example, be likely to lead a band of underground subversive radicals plotting against a tyrannical government? In real life she might, but fiction would demand a stronger name than that. Perhaps Tess or Ruby would suggest her strength and sense of purpose better.
Finding good names that are not too common is impossible to do without a good dictionary. Even making a list of unusual names could prompt a writer with much inspiration, and perhaps lead to the creation of a totally new novel. What personalities do the following names suggest?
Eleazar, Bronwyn, Mardi, Ceridwen, Sorcha, Warwick, Ysanne, Anders, Chrisanda, Sergio and Vanslow. Each one seems to suggest some image of a person whose actions, deeds and exploits could easily form, or change, the very form of a novel.
It is really not possible to write a novel using any old name such as Bob or Ann and then hope to find better names later - the book will take on a totally different feel! Not that Bob or Ann are bad names. Far from it - in real life there are many Bobs and Anns who are wonderful people. But fiction is not exactly like real life, and needs to create in the mind of the reader the exact atmosphere and character the author intends. Attempting to change a character name at any later stage in the development of a novel will do amazing things to the action and tone. It seems unbelievable, but it does!
So what's in a name? In a novel, it suggests meaning, form, character, and all the aspects we have culturally learned to attach to names, such as strength, background, tendencies and habits, wealth, origin and culture. Something as simple as a name is what could make a book very popular, and could very well make a character eternal.