Many years ago, my high school teacher assigned my class to read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I filled that assignment and it was a great read, though I remember only a few things about the experience. I remember how the struggles that family faced pulled on my emotions. The characters came to life for me, even though today I don’t recall everything they did or even their names—that is, all except for one. Rose of Sharon stuck in my mind because I thought it an odd name, especially when the characters’ accents slurred the name into Rosasharn. The name bothered me through the entire novel. Why would Steinbeck choose such an unusual name? I imagine if I did a little research, I’d find that Rose of Sharon was a familiar name to that era and locale. Funny—how Rosasharn is the only name I remember forty years later.
Naming our characters in a way that will cling to our readers’ minds is a vital aspect of characterization. Of course, nothing is as important as creating word images that make your characters walk off the page, but the process falls short if we dub our heroes or heroines mundane or overused names that will fade with time. Nor do we want to use names that go to the extreme, unless our novel is extreme and that kind of name fits. Here are a few things to think about while you hunt for the perfect name for your characters.
Avoid Common-Place Names or Overused Names – Whether a name is common place or not depends on the trend. Names that were frequently used fifty years ago may be fresh for the taking in the current market. Knowing your character will make your choice easier. Is your character powerful or wealthy? Would a name like Melvin Bunny portray those characteristics? Or would Trask Hamilton provide a better picture? You might even use genealogy sources to look up possible surnames. Scour what names are used in current books or on the back of novel covers to make sure you're using unique names and not someone else’s. Especially avoid names that belong to someone famous.
Stay Clear of Names That Sound the Same – Characters with names that sound alike are a distraction. Names don’t even need to start with the same letter to sound similar. If you use names like Jerry and Larry your readers may confuse them throughout the novel. Don't end the first name with the same sound as the last name either. A character whose name is Damon Namouth will keep your reader’s tongues twisting for days.
Use Names That Fit the Period or Genre – Entering your name choices into a web search engine will help you research names common to an era. Make sure these names were used exclusively for males or for females during that time period or used for a specific ethnic background. You can also browse the Social Security Names List for a specific year if your character was born in the U.S. But whatever name captures your attention, keep the names something modern day readers can relate to and something they can pronounce.
Other Things to Consider –When writing your story, note how people who are close rarely use each other's full names. They use nicknames more often than not. Sometimes a specific reason lies behind the naming of a character. Your character's parents loved the movie Star Wars so they named their son Han. If you use that kind of motivation, find out how the name has affected that character throughout his life? Is the name an embarrassment when his parents address him in front of his fiancé? Does your hero go by a different name throughout his life to avoid strange reactions? Let these odd circumstances become a part of your story.
Choosing captivating names for your characters is an art. We’re going for memorable here. The more memorable, the more likely your readers will remember the characters in your novel forty years down the road.