An expectant mother is overheard choosing a name for her child: Pat, Kelly, Terry, Bobby. Her sole reason for considering these particular names is that each can be applied to both a boy and girl. This flexibility could save her the disappointment of choosing a name early only to have her give it up upon discovering the actual gender of her baby.
But this flexibility is precisely the reason we should avoid assigning interchangeable names to the characters in our stories. Although an audience will immediately recognise someone by her or his appearance, this is not the case with words on a page. Here, the character description performs this function, which, in the short story or novel, may be purposely scanty, or scattered throughout the text. At a glance, the name of the character is the chief indicator of identity, as in the above instance. Few readers will doubt the gender of a Samuel, Rachael, Frederick, or Penelope.
It is also good practice to avoid giving characters similar sounding names. Clive and Kyle, Sharon and Shannine, Harry and Larry—except, of course, where the possible confusion flowing from this similarity helps the plot.
But a name may also add additional meaning and flavour to a character: Biblical names such as Paul, Peter, Ezekiel, Rachael, Mary and David, although commonplace, may still carry a trace of biblical resonance, especially if the context supports this. In my forthcoming novel, Mars: Planet of Redemption, the protagonist, an unconventional priest with the power to heal, is called Paul, for precisely this reason.
Certain names may hint at an entire belief system or only certain aspects of a character whether that character turns out to adhere to that association or not. The more unusual or uncommon the name, the stronger the association. Few of us, for example, would name our character Hitler or Mandela without expecting some association to accrue, and without providing some sort of reason in the plot why we have chosen to do so.
The web is replete with lists and articles providing and explaining the origin of names, their meaning and history. Books on naming conventions, available at any bookstore, are also a good place to start hunting for that all important handle of characters.
Choosing the right name for your character is the first step in developing a unique and effective character identity.
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