Naming your character is important… but also a pain in the ass. If you’re like me you usually spend 10 good minutes trying to come up with a original idea for a character name that the audience will remember.
You brainstorm and write everything in your head on a sheet of paper, look at it without finding anything good, and give up. Then you try googling “Name generator” scroll down the list of all the random proposes only to find two names worth of notice: Jack Sparrow (already taken) and Northbert Hollander (nope).
You might even try to delay the decision waiting for a stroke of genius, but sooner or later you’ll have to name your character. Fortunately, there is a simple method that lets you give your character a name and a last name that the audience will love: don’t give importance to the character’s name alone, give importance to the name in the story.
To explain better, let’s look at 2 examples:
Is this a strange, original, game-changing, impossible name? No, it’s nothing special, and yet we remember it. If you’re writing a fantasy story (be it a book or a screenplay) you’ve probably heard of those two methods:
- make up a language and use a word to create a name (but seriously, do you have the time to make up a whole language by yourself? How do you even start to do that?)
- use a the root of a word of your native language to come up with a name (a useful advice, but how many writers speak your native language? How many of them will come up with the same or a similar name?)
Despite the fact that her series of books is located in a fantastic school, JK Rowling decided to give her protagonist a “real” name. It’s not as unique or fantastic as Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins. It’s a name that (before 1997) could have gone unnoticed, and yet (again) we remember it.
The secret is not much to make the name complicated or original, it’s to give it a symbolical meaning within the story. In the series, whenever Harry gets introduced to someone, the person usually recognises him as “the boy who lived” or “the chosen one” either because of his name or his scar.
The fact that he miraculously survived the Dark Lord gives a sense of hope, but the fact that Voldemort might one day come back to take revenge on him is scary. This way the audience as well will make an unconscious association, Harry is either the “chosen one” that will save the day, or the poor survivor that has to live in fear of a dark wizard.
Harry Potter = the boy who lived
The same goes for Voldemort himself: regardless of how cool sounding his name his, it’s not as important as it’s place in the story. The character who talk about him don’t always say Voldemort out loud, but rather “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” because he is so terrifying that they can’t bring themselves to address him directly or not. This way, Voldemort is associated with fear. People is so afraid of him that a word represents a threat. So:
Voldemort = fear and horror
But the truth is that Rowling might have called them respectively Joy and Gary, as long as the characters in the books have the same reactions, the audience will make the same unconscious association.
And that’s it. No need to spend time crafting an unpronounceable character name out of guttural sounds. No need to take out a Bible to find inspiration for an epic name.
Give you character an important reputation and the name will fit perfectly.
But what if your story is not setted in a fictional world? Here’s the Godfather as an example.
Vito Corleone has 5 children:
- Santino “Sonny”
- Frederico “Fredo”
- Constanzia “Connie”
- Tom Hagen
Notice anything? Michael and Tom stand out in the list, because they’re names are not italian. Tom is adopted so it makes sense that his name is different from the others, but Michael? He’s the only one with an american name and an italian last name.
One of the main themes in The Godfather is the duality of the mobster life. We see that in the very first scene that has completely different 2 locations where different events take place (the joyful wedding in the sun, and the secret “business” inside Vito’s dark studio).
This duality is the center of the movie and the core of Michael’s struggle: choosing between his family (his siblings and his parents that he loves), and “the family” (people that are involved in his father’s mob affairs).
If you think about the duality as the central theme, it’s clear the meaning of his name:
- “Michael” represents his identity, he doesn’t want to be part of the business, he is his own man and wants a different life, a lawful one.
- “Corleone” it’s not something he possesses. It was passed down to him by his father and the other men of the family before him, it represents his italian origins but also his family’s crime empire.
The movie highlights the importance of this duality in the way its protagonist is called. The american name symbolizes his status as the son of an immigrant: he doesn’t speak italian well, he calls himself a foreigner in Italy. The italian “Corleone” represents both his origins and his responsibility as a member of this family. When his father gets shot he can no longer pretend to have nothing to do with him, and he must use the name Corleone (the fear and respect that comes with it) to he has to protect Vito.
Later, when he is in Italy, he must once again use the reputation of the Corleone family to get protection. Also his 2 bodyguards, and the other people he meets, call him Michele not Michael. The name here becomes a constant reminder that if he wants to survive and protect his family he can’t come back to the honest life had before, he must embrace the “business” and become like his father.
By the end of the movie, his name is changed with him: now everyone calls him “Godfather”. There there is no trace of the Michael we met at the beginning, just a man who grants favors from the shadows on his studio, just like Vito in the first scene.
Basically the name becomes part of the narrative, it’s used as a tool to express duality just like the cinematography that casts dark shadows on one side of the actor’s face, while shining a gentle light on the other side.
So what’s the takeaway from all this? The name itself doesn’t really matter, it’s a word not much different than “potato”. But the way you use the name in your story does. Don’t try to hammer it in the heads of your audience by repeating it as many times as you can, try to use it in a clever way, give it a special meaning, and whoever reads or sees your story will remember it.