Naming names

If you are writing fiction and having trouble making up character names, take a cue from people who have had to name themselves in real life.

It’s hard for a cowboy to swagger into a saloon when his name is named Marion Morrison. But once he changed it to John Wayne, he sounded like he belonged. There’s no reason that a romantic lead can’t be named Arthur Kelm, but it was easier to win over the audience once he changed his name to Tab Hunter.

In a way, the name game is unfair to your characters. It reinforces stereotypes. For a sophisticated and snobbish character, readers will embrace the name Eustace Fortescue more easily than Gus Blivnik. Just close your eyes and say the names and see what kinds of images pop into your head. Poor Gus.

Like it or not, character names act as a kind of shorthand for conveying personality traits. You can really drive home the point if you add a nickname. Back in the 1950s there was a Minneapolis mobster named Israel Alderman. Does that sound very intimidating to you? You might get a different impression from his nickname: Ice Pick Willie.

The right name can also make it easier to gloss over some of your character’s unpleasant qualities. Martha Stewart didn’t need to make up a name for herself. She already sounded like someone who would be an arbiter of good taste. That made it easier for her to get back in her groove after she went to prison for securities fraud. If she had emerged from the slammer as “Marcy The Eggbeater,” she might have had a tougher time with her image.

If you don’t want to telegraph a character’s traits, a good neutral name lets the traits emerge organically.

Very early in actor Harrison Ford’s career, a movie studio suggested that he change his name. A recent article in GQ magazine said Ford was not keen on the idea, so he came up with “the stupidest name I could think of,” Kurt Affair. The studio backed off.

The name “Harrison” might sound a little pretentious — certainly more so than “Harry” — but “Ford” is rock solid. Together, the name sounds like a guy who could play an adventure seeking archeologist or a space cowboy or a futuristic detective. Whether Harrison Ford realized it or not, there had already been a successful leading man with the same name in the early days of Hollywood.

You also can use the name game to make a point in your story that people put too much store in the sound of a name. In that case, Gus Blivnik might make an ideal name for a connoisseur of fine porcelain. But maybe introduce him first as Gustavo.

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