What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.
Juliet was wrong.
In fiction, a lot can be contained within a character’s name! Dickens was particularly keen on making his characters’ names speak for their personality and he gave us symbolically significant ones such as Twist, Steerforth, Rose, Pocket, Dedlock, and Scrooge. Each name subtly, and sometimes less subtly, reveals something either about the character’s nature or how the author wants us to feel about them.
J.K. Rowling follows in his footsteps: Severus Snape and Voldemort as lucid examples; Darth Vader as a derivation of ‘dark’ and ‘father’ – the list goes on.
Personally, I much enjoy when characters’ names carry significance, however subtly. It gives that extra fictional feeling to a story, and, for me, adds weight to its content. One could of couse also argue that such a device detracts from any realist claims made by the author/narrator.
I don’t read much ‘realist’ fiction anyway.
Back to the topic: how does one find suitable character names? This aspect is one of my weaker ones I must admit, but the feeling when I get it right is so sweet it’s worth all the work. For it is work. Whether you make up your own names, create them from Latin or mythological origins, or use your own connotations, it’s a lot more complex than simply perusing through a list of Most Popular Baby Names.
Don’t be lazy. Give your characters significant names, regardless of how ‘common’ or ‘realist’ they are. In Jane Eyre, it is often argued that she is called Jane because it is a simple, plain name to reflect her character. It doesn’t have to be more difficult than that, but at least there is thought behind the naming of her. Swap her name for Broomhilda in Django Unchained. Both stories alter enormously – and lose a lot of their creative flair.
What’s in a name? Well, perhaps not everything, but I’d say quite a lot. It is part of your character’s identity and needs as much thought as any other aspect. You’ll know when it’s right, because if your character is a ‘real’ person there is a name out there which will fit and extend his/her portrayal even further. And it’s a thrill when you find it!