What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II
Naming your characters well is one of the most powerful things you can do to paint clear pictures of them in your reader’s mind. The right name can instantly convey many things: time period (Elizabeth vs. Liz), age (Tommy vs. Thomas), socioeconomic status (Blake vs. Bud), character’s relationship to another character (Mother, Aunt Jane, Pappy)…and the list goes on.
In many cases, the best choice is a name that is classic and easy to pronounce—one that is essentially transparent and will not distract from the story. There are times, however, when a distinct name is valuable.
A name that is uncommon can be an excellent tool for world building. Giving a character a name that is foreign can help transport the reader to an exotic locale or provide insight to the character’s ancestry. Interpol put together this comprehensive Guide to Names and Naming Practices that covers thirty regions around the world. It will help you identify the correct order for a person’s given name and family name in each culture and provides guidelines about married names and children’s names. Patronymics, honorifics, religious names, caste names, and place names are touched on as well for the cultures where they apply.
Assigning a name that is not familiar in any language (like Katniss, Bilbo, or Dumbledore) reinforces the concept that your character inhabits a world that only loosely overlaps with present day reality.
A colorful name can also be used to make a character seem dynamic or larger than life. Think Pippi Longstocking and Horatio Hornblower.
There are pitfalls to avoid as well. If you give your character a gender-ambiguous name and then don’t give other clues to gender up front, your reader may picture the opposite of what you intended until something eventually reveals the truth. (Your readers may also find themselves in an uncomfortable state of limbo, like I did when I scoured chapter after chapter of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society for hints as to whether the protagonist was a man or a woman. It took way too long to decide, at which point I was quite fed up!) Some gender associations vary based on time period or geography (Ashley, for example), so be cautious about that.
One final thought about names… They’re like sports jersey numbers: some of them are quite definitively retired. Unless you’re looking for the connotations that are certain to follow, avoid naming your characters Romeo, Scarlett, Madonna, Mr. Darcy, or the like.
Happy Writing—get out there and name some characters!