Belonging to discussion groups for fiction writers, one often comes across beginners asking each other how to come up with names for their characters. Should they just page through phonebooks? Should they ….?
– Seems to me it hardly matters what you call them early on. They often haven’t found and developed their depths and complexities throughout much of the first draft anyway. But once they have begun to discover and express themselves, some names will seem to express their specificities and complexities more than others would. Call them any name that comes to you as you are first developing the story. But after that it becomes a process of helping them to reveal their own names through whom and what they have become.
In “The Mourning After” I called the little boy Denis to show that the father may have been a war hero soldier, and demanded a man’s name for his child, but he also loved his wife, and yielded enough to let her spell it with one N (Thus letting it sound more sensitive, poetic, and maybe even a little Frenchified). – None of this was actually mentioned in the story, but a character’s name definitely has its effects on the moods of the tale, and on that character’s believability.
In “The Gardens of Ailana”, Marsha is first introduced as a bit of an insensitive lout and a truck driver. So I gave her a name that allowed other characters to nickname her Marsh, often a man’s name, thus referring to her manly qualities. But then, further into the story, people actually started to know her and like her, and at that point, Marsh became their nickname for someone they actually liked as a woman.
Artists must decide for themselves when their painting, or poem, or whatever is ready. My personal standards are that I will not release a novel until no word could be changed without losing some of its power and meaning within the story. Until each metaphor has layers; may refer backwards and forwards through several threads of the story; and is in no way cliched, boilerplate, or traditional (No blood red skies, or ideas hitting me like lightning, for example). And the book is also not ready if even a passing background character is left two-dimensional and under-developed. A part of each character’s richness then, would have led to them finding names that suit them.