A lot, it turns out.
I have always been fascinated with names. I can’t say when my name obsession began really, but I remember making baby name lists in elementary school. And when it was time to name each of our children, my husband and I had lengthy discussions regarding their names. I remember being fond of more unusual names. Not crazy, hard-to-spell, unpronounceable names mind you, just different names.
I felt like we were being original with our daughter, but there ended up being more Courtneys in her school than there were Heathers in the mid-eighties. Perhaps that’s why she insisted upon being addressed by her middle name for a brief period.
And perhaps that’s why Courtney says sometimes she chooses to read books based on the characters’ names only. For example, she picked up Uglies by Scott Westerfeld* because the main character was named Tally. She was also drawn to Hunger Games by Katniss’ name.
Recently I read a book series in which the love interest of the main character was named Leon. Now he was a great character. I liked his personality, had compassion for his situation, and I truly wanted the girl to fall for him. But his name was Leon. To me, Leon screamed wrinkled old guy, not hot young dude that would make a girl swoon. (No offense to anyone named Leon or anyone with a grandpa relative named Leon.) Throughout most of the series I mentally called him Leo just so DiCaprio would be in my head, not the wacky guy from the Six Flags commercials.
I think that shows that there’s power in names. The name is the first thing you process about a character. In most instances, you know a character’s name before you read any physical descriptions, or are given any background info, or get to know the character at all. So choose wisely young Padowan writer. You don’t want to use a name that’s going to trip up your readers and force them to DiCaprian places in their minds.
I’ve been watching the television show, Under The Dome which is based on a Stephen King novel. If I had no previous knowledge of what this show was, I could have told you within a few episodes that it was King. Why? The names of the characters. He favors simple Americana-style names: Big Jim, Rose, Ollie, Joe, Angie, etc… Something about those names just spells out Stephen King. That’s a great example of having a “voice” in writing.
I’ve chosen unique names for my first novel. I hope they’ll invoke the spirit in which I intended. For my second novel (yes, I said second, a writer has to write if there’s something begging to get out of her head) I’m using names in a very specific way. The name of the main character was chosen to signify a certain image.
In everything that I’ve written thus far, I have to let the characters live in the story for a while to see if I’ve chosen the right name for my characters. In some cases I did. And in some cases, I renamed. In all cases, I seem to instinctually know when I’ve got the right name on the right character. And when that happens, they become more real and I’m able to do so much more with them.
*If you haven’t read this book series, I highly recommend you pick it up immediately! File this one under the “If you liked Hunger Games, you’ll love this” category.