Someone asked me recently if I start a story with a character’s name or or if I start with a story. Here’s what I told them.
Names don’t matter. They just don’t. Falling in love with a character’s name is vanity. We all do it. In middle school, I wrote about girls named Tygre and Sapphire. That’s how you knew they were special, you see. I abandoned that sort of mental dick-jerking pretty quickly. Cutesy names, perfect names, haunting or evocative names… none of them matter. Vanity.
If you don’t have a story, how do you know WHO to name? If there’s no what, then why figure out the who? So many times I’ve read an aspiring writer’s set up and it looks just like this: a cast of about 5-6 well fleshed out characters with exhaustive back stories, middle names, favorites and phobias. That’s it. There’s usually a line that says “I know X will fall in love with Y, but Y is really in love with Z, and I know it takes place in the future.”
If you don’t know what’s coming, then why do you know it will require 5-6 characters to get there? What if it turns into a sprawling, multigenerational epic? What if one character gets marooned on a moon? Will you need 4 or 5 more characters to tell me that story? Characters are just a tool. You only need what you need to make the story the best it can be. If your characters don’t serve your story, then they serve your ego.
Names are just a tool. I keep a list of names suited for the fantasy world I’m working in, so if I need one, I grab the list, and plug it in. That’s it. I make sure the starting letter of the name doesn’t repeat too often or clash with a main character (I’m looking at you, G.R.R.M). Then I write the story.
Dump the pretense and the little games. Get an idea and use your tools to shape it into something spectacular. Characters are only tools. They are not in charge of your story, they are the employees of your story. The sooner you can get your head around this, the better your writing will be. All other things must serve it. Names should be the least of your concerns.
P.S. They do require some thought. But not before story. Read Names, Part 2 for more on associations, and what to consider before naming a character.
P.P.S. Not every character deserves a name. Some cast members are just extras, you know? Not every part is a speaking part. If that character’s actions don’t really move your story along, consider not naming them, or just referring to them as “the cook” or “the proctologist” or “the heavyset lady with the grocery bag full of celery”. Whatever.
Name Shame Game: if you’re brave enough, spill your guts in the comments section below. I wasn’t kidding when I was talking about Tygre; I actually wrote a story about her in middle school. She wore gloves all the time and preferred to only eat pomegranates. Tell me the worst, the most overwrought, the most MarySueish names you can think of, or own up to the terrible ones you’ve written yourself.