What's In A Name?
Author Stephen Leather discusses the importance of character names.
What’s in a name? Well, when it comes to a character in a novel, pretty much everything.
Choosing the right name can mean that a reader instantly identifies with a character and cares about what happens to them. Choosing the wrong name can put a reader off before you’ve even got started on the story. So making the right choice is crucial.
I have created two long-running characters: undercover cop Dan “Spider” Shepherd and supernatural detective Jack Nightingale. And I went to a lot of trouble choosing both of those names.
With action heroes, a single syllable first name followed by a double syllable family name seems to work best – think Jack Reacher (created by Lee Child) or Joe Hunter (created by Matt Hilton). Both Reacher and Hunter are great surnames for loners who are happy to kill at will, but I chose Shepherd because the name evokes a feeling of security and safety – a shepherd takes care of his flock, after all. Dan is simple and uncomplicated and goes well with Shepherd. Dan Shepherd has the sound of a hero, whereas Reginald Shepherd doesn’t.
With Jack Nightingale, I again wanted a simple and direct first name. Jack works as a heroic name. As does Mick. Bob does as well, but Robert not so much. Then for the family name I wanted something with several syllables, but a name that was very distinctive. I also wanted the name to be soft, because Jack Nightingale often finds himself in danger and out of his depth. Nightingales are sweet and innocent, and although my character has his dark side, the name does emphasise his vulnerability.
Every name in a book matters and has to be right. So how do I come up with names for the dozens of minor characters that populate a novel? One thing I do is to collect names. If a fan goes to the trouble of writing to me, I’ll often jot the name down in my Filofax. I do the same for readers who have gone to the trouble of writing a flattering review of one of my books. Then when I find myself short of a name I can open the Filofax and pick a suitable one from the list.
I tend to write with the television on – for some reason I find it impossible to be creative in silence – and if I still need a name I will often look at the credits of a TV show or movie as they scroll by. I can take the first name of an actor and the family name of a producer and I have a new character!
And I can let you into a writer’s trick – you never want to have two characters whose surnames are about the same length and start with the same letter. When you’re reading, your brain take short cuts and often recognises a name by its length and starting letter. So as you scan a page, Mackenzie can look like Mitchell which can look like Macdonald. Ditto John, Jack, Jake and Jane. That can cause all sorts of confusion, so before I send my finished novel to my publishers I always make a list of the characters in it and make sure that no two names have the same first letter!