Sometimes someone says something to you which makes you see things in a different way. Some recent comments from my readers have had that effect on me.
I’ve always played it safe with character names, trying not to stray into comedy, cause offence or sound reminiscent of anyone famous. I have tried to broaden the geographical spread of my character names, after it was pointed out to me that in my first book everyone seemed to have a common British name, and that has gone some way my character names more interesting. But not far enough.
In real life no-one wants an embarrassing name, a crazy name or a name which sounds like their job (nominative determinism if you prefer), but novels are not real life. In a novel, a character’s name is a flag. No matter how distinctive their appearance, how graphic their description, they will mostly be referred to by just their name. Other characters will refer to them by name. Readers who talk to other readers about your novel will often refer to characters by just their name.
Every character’s name is crucial. It’s the memory key that recalls every other part of their personality and appearance in the mind of your reader. If it’s not distinctive, evocative and memorable then you run the risk of readers becoming confused. If they lose track of which character is which then, no matter how exciting the story is, the whole thing will stop making sense. That’s when you lose the reader.
Previously I had shied away from names which were outlandish or too unlikely, but with experience I’ve learned that most names start to sound normal within a few pages.
When a review of my novel Icarus pointed out that it was too easy to get the captains of the two spacecraft mixed up as their names were both quite mundane, I knew it was time to change my approach. On one level it seems like a minor issue, but if readers are complaining about it and it’s affecting their ability to track the story, it is anything but minor.
It was time to try out more memorable names that perhaps were not as realistic and, sure enough, it works a treat. Any perceived strangeness tends to wear off within a couple of pages. My proof-readers all agreed that by the time they were two chapters into the novel, none of the names felt strange and this time remembering which character had which name was no problem at all.
Now all I have to do is mention a character’s name and the reader instantly has the mental image of that character in their mind.