What’s in a name?
Rather a lot, actually. At least, there is when you are trying to build up the image of a fictional character. This is particularly true in short story writing, where you might well have an upper word limit. If you only have a thousand or fifteen hundred words to play with, you cannot waste any on detailed description; get the name right and you are halfway there.
What sort of information can one glean from a characters name? Their approximate age, for a start, or at least their generation. My mother’s contemporaries had names like Edith, Sybil or Maud. I grew up with Susans, Barbaras and Elaines, while my daughter’s friends were all Emmas, Lisas, Zoes, and Janes. Men’s names are possibly less subject to changing fashion, but still a Cyril sounds older than a Jason.
A characters name can also indicate social class – Fiona definitely sounds more upmarket than Tracey – though a certain amount of caution is advisable. Names often follow a cycle, starting off ‘posh’, then moving down the social scale as they become more popular, falling out of use for a while before reappearing at the top end again. So you really need to know what stage of the cycle a particular name had reached when your character was born! There are a number of useful Internet sites which list the most popular names in a given year, for example http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/
What else? Religion possibly. I doubt if you find many Protestants called Conceptua, or Roman Catholics called Luther. Many Biblical names are common to the Christian and Jewish tradition, but the form of the name can be a clue – whether Mary, Miriam or Mariamne.
Names also have geographical significance; you can use them to show where your character comes from. The twentieth century fashion for foreign names (especially female) means this is not as useful as it might be, but still, If you call a character Nicolai there is a strong possibility that he is Russian. They can be even more specific – Higginses come from London, while anything ending in ‘–bottom’ has to be from the north. A name can be used to make a character fit the setting of the story, or stand out from it. What ‘O Reilly’ tells you about a character will differ, depending on whether the story is set in Dublin, New York or Timbuktu.
Names also have to fit the historical period - you would not want to give an eighteenth century leading man a modern sounding name. No Jane Austen hero was ever called Wayne. Anglo-Saxon names, for instance, were very rare before the late nineteenth century (except among the Anglo-Saxons, of course).
Names in fiction are useful in expressing the personality of the character. If you want your hero or heroine to stand out, then give them an unusual name. Cliantha, say, or Tybalt. Good characters have pleasant sounding names – Angelica, Justin. Villains should sound villainous – Jasper, Hugo, Jezebel, Murdina. Or if you want your main character to be an ordinary person, give them an ordinary name – John, Anne, Peter, Mary.
Important though it is to find names which fit your characters, it is even more important to avoid ones which don’t fit. I read a novel once, in which the main characters were a pair of young lovers, in a modern setting. The author had called her hero ‘Clarence’. Surely nobody under eighty is called Clarence? To cap it all, she had called the heroine, an aspiring actress, ‘Mavis’! It was no use. No matter how vividly she described them, I could not believe in Mavis and Clarence. So pick a name which fits, whether it’s Rudolf and Belinda or any Tom, Dick or Harry. Well. Tom and Harry are OK. I might be a bit wary of Dick.