When we first get an idea for a story, the characters who will populate that story often start out shadowy and vague. Either before the writing process (if we’re plotters) or during the writing process (if we’re pantsers), we have to develop those characters into something solid and colorful. We have to make them real to the reader.
We all have different ways to build characters. Listening to the whisperings of our muse, completing character sheets, layering them with personality traits (like from my Strong Characters series), or any other of a hundred different methods.
I usually need to start with something to spark my impression of a character before their characteristics come to mind. Maybe some mannerism will expose their quirks. Or maybe thinking about what kind of a person would choose the job they have will give me ideas.
Sometimes I search for pictures of faces, but I don’t use generic photos. I go for the ones with emotion in their expression, maybe a sense of mystery, determination, or mischievousness.
Other times, I’ll start with a name. Does that name make me think of someone uptight or smiling? Insecure or confident? Optimistic or pessimistic? Then I decide if I’ll match those expectations or play against type.
If I don’t come up with the name first, then I have the harder job of trying to match a name to the character. Like many writers, I put a lot of thought into my character names. The names I choose often have subtext-filled meanings or hidden themes.
I’ve been thinking about character names because YA author Natalie Whipple had a blog post yesterday teasing that she’s already used all the names and no one else can have them. Don’t worry. By the end of the post, she admitted that she could probably share.
In fact, she ended with an interesting point:
[A] name is only a very small fraction of a character. If you’ve written a truly dimensional character, they will stand out no matter what their name is. … So maybe instead of asking, “Is this the right name?” We should ask, “Would this character stand out even if I named him John Smith?”
I think she’s right. I don’t usually pay attention to character names when I’m reading a story. So from a reader’s point of view, that character better be good even if he registers only as “hero dude” in my memory.
From that perspective, a character’s name is like backstory we—as the author—know about a character that we use to color their dialogue and actions, but that we never explicitly spell out to the reader.
This concept doesn’t mean I’ll change my approach. I’ll still search for the perfect name for each of my characters, but I’ll make sure their name is an add-on to their greatness and not the foundation.
How do you come up with character ideas (pictures, names, character sheets, etc.)? How much effort do you put into finding the “perfect” name for your characters? How much do you pay attention to character names in stories you read?