This is something that pops up from time to time on the writing boards: How do you choose names for your characters? Writers are desperate for a magic formula, a secret for coming up with perfect charcter names. Well, I have it.
A character’s name represent just a few words out of a hundred thousand. But these few words some writers labor over incessantly. It’s like a religious experience. A character’s name represents that character. It’s arbitrary, but at the same time immensely important. Some writers even get so obsessed with finding the perfect name, the one that represents their character to a tee, that they find they can’t choose. They hate naming characters, because whatever name they choose isn’t good enough. I want to solve that problem.
Quick! When you meet someone, what’s the first thing you notice? Probably his sex. Maybe the color of his hair or how tall he is. As you get to know him, you’ll come to identify him with his personality. Have you ever, upon meeting someone, drawn any conclusions about him based on his name? Probably not. Names are only affect our opinions of people we’ve never met. But as authors our job is to introduce the audience to our characters. If we’re doing our job correctly, no one’s going to care about their names.
Pick up any good tutorial or reference on character development. Does it mention character naming? Probably not. Neither Orson Scott Card’s Character & Viewpoint nor Holly Lisle’s Create a Character Clinic does. If you read through these, you’ll think characters don’t even have names. Indeed, in some stories, they don’t. Yet even in these, we feel we know the character, because the author has introduced him to us.
Sometimes we can use a character’s name to identify his nationality, bringing in with it all of the stereotypes of that nationality. What if I—without telling you anything else—named a character Tahib El-Qadar? You’d immediately get an image in your mind of what he looks like, his culture, and maybe even his opinions. I could then start manipulating that image, introducing him to you. Many of your preconceived notions will prove to be correct. Some will need to change.
And then there are exceptional cases. When Robert Heinlein in his novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress names the main character Manuel Garcia O’Kelly Davis, we immediately realize he has a varied heritage and lives in a society in which this fact is the norm.
Character names are like any other words in a story. Choose them carefully only if they’ll make a difference. Otherwise, don’t sweat. Just pick something and move on. It’s much more important to develop the whole of the character than to obsess over a few little words. That’s the big secret to naming characters.