When I get past the basic outline of a new story I design all the significant characters before I start writing. I like to fill out a character inventory for each to really know these folks so I’ll be able to know what they’ll do in a given situation. There’s a lot I want to know about a character’s background, history and personality, but I always start with the name.
While I agree that character names shouldn’t be important, the truth is that we humans are pretty superficial and we draw a lot of meaning out of a person’s name.
A character’s name can tell us a bit about his family. Who is your character named after? Who named her, mom or dad? Does she have a name that indicates parental personality expectations? Faith? Chastity? Felicity? Hope? And if so, has your character grown into her name, or taken a stance in opposition to it, like fictional adventurer Modesty Blaise?
Last names often indicate nationality with all the assumptions they bring. So if you have a fellow named Patrick O’Connor in your story and he ISN’T Irish, you’d better tell us quickly, because we’ve already slotted him. And in fact if he isn’t, there’s a story hidden there that will tell us a good deal about him.
Similarly, nicknames tell us a lot about your character, but we need to know if he took the nick himself or if someone stuck him with it. If you introduce me to Tiny I expect to meet a giant. But if her pals call her Brain, she might be the one who always has a plan, OR she might be an idiot. Either way, the fact that she accepted that nickname tells us about her confidence level and self-image. And remember, if a name has meaning for you, even if it isn’t obvious, others will pick up on it.
For example, I write a mystery series about a private detective named Hannibal Jones. I gave Hannibal a common last name because in one aspect I wanted him to represent an everyman. But his less common last name required more thought. And no, he was not named after any villainous cannibal.
Hannibal’s father was an American soldier married to a German national. Dad wanted his son to be a warrior, so he decided to name him after a great military leader. Alexander seemed too common. With a German wife he knew Napoleon would be a bad choice. Then he remembered that he DID know of one great African general. The original Hannibal was born in Carthage (Northern coast of Africa, across from Italy) around 247 BC. He is generally considered one of the greatest military leaders in history. He is famous for battling the Roman legions (the definite underdog in the Second Punic War.) He is remembered for using elephants in his army and for catching the Romans off guard by crossing the Alps.
So the name Hannibal resonates with African heritage, military leadership, strength, creativity, and the willingness to face a much stronger opponent. If you are literate, you may subconsciously read all of that into my detective’s name and have a whole assortment of expectations concerning this character without even knowing it.
BTW, the latest Hannibal Jones mystery, Russian Roulette, has just been released this week on amazon.com and Kindle. It will be in stores June 13th.