How hard can it be, nonwriters often say, to name your characters?
Well, I can think of easier tasks. It's one thing to name them, but it's another to do it well.
The other day I started writing a new mystery story, and I'm making good progress--but I've come to the point where I need to start assigning names. So far my characters are S for Sheriff, P for Prisoner, O for Old man, W for Waitress, C for Cook, and V for Villain. I usually substitute letters as placeholders until I come up with names I really like. Even after I choose the names, they might change several times during the course of the story as new brainstorms roll in, in which case I make extensive use of (but don't entirely trust) the "Find and Replace" utility. I dread the day when I'll probably submit a story someplace with the hero saying something like "It's over, V. Drop the gun."
As all of you know, the choice of appropriate names can be vitally important, and at the very least can make any story better. I think The Silence of the Lambs would've been a great novel and movie regardless of the characters' names, but making the bad guys Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter sure didn't hurt. And sometimes "appropriate" can have a wide range. I think part of Stephen King's success is due to the fact that he often writes about ordinary characters that everyone can relate to, and the names of his protagonists usually reflect that: Bill Hodges, Luke Ellis, Fran Goldsmith, Tom Cullen, Larry Underwood, Annie Wilkes, Robert Anderson, Paul Sheldon, Carrie White. One of his main characters (the novel was The Dead Zone) was named John Smith. Having said that, King can also get pretty creative with character-naming when it's needed: Roland Deschain, Gordie Lachance, Randall Flagg, Percy Wetmore, etc.
Looking back on the novels I've read and the movies and TV shows I've seen, I can recall character names that seem absolutely perfect for their stories. We all know some of those--Atticus Finch, James Bond, Ebenezer Scrooge, Luke Skywalker, Ichabod Crane, Indiana Jones, Rocky Balboa, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, and so on. A few have become better known than the stories in which they appeared.
Here are plenty more names, categorized but in no particular order, that I think are wonderful. How many of these can you remember?
Barney Fife, Stephanie Plum, Forrest Gump, Hedley Lamarr, Buzz Lightyear, Milo Minderbinder, Jack Sparrow, Ace Ventura, Hawkeye Pierce, Walter Mitty, Holly Golightly, Arthur Fonzarelli, Ron Burgundy, Mary Poppins, Gaylord Focker, Hoss Cartwright, Jack Tripper, Buford T. Justice, Maynard G. Krebs, Marty McFly, Ferris Bueller, Bilbo Baggins
Frank Bullitt, Sam Spade, Woodrow Call, Will Kane, Ellen Ripley, Jesse Stone, Rick Deckard, Han Solo, Sansa Stark, Thomas Magnum, Dana Scully, Jack Shepherd, Joe Mannix, Philip Marlowe, Nero Wolfe, Peter Gunn, Dan Roman, Rudi Matt, Remington Steele, Thomas Crown, Miranda Priestly, Judah Ben-Hur, Ethan Hunt, Mike Hammer
Keyser Soze, Victor Laszlo, Axel Foley, Vito Corleone, Imperator Furiosa, Boo Radley, Tony Soprano, Daenerys Targaryen, Jonathan Hemlock, Inigo Montoya, Thorin Oakenshield, Wednesday Addams, Lando Calrissian, V. I. Warschawski, Optimus Prime, Dave Robischeaux, Tyler Durden, Jay Gatsby, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Arkady Renko, Tyrion Lannister
Hans Gruber, Gordon Gekko, Francis Dollarhyde, Darth Vader, Uriah Heep, Lord Voldemort, Nurse Ratched, Joffrey Baratheon, Jason Voorhees, Anton Chigurh, Bellatrix Lestrange, Draco Malfoy, Simon Legree, Freddy Krueger, Hector Barbossa, Gyp Rosetti, Black Jack Randall, Amon Goeth, Hannibal Lecter, Kylo Ren, Biff Tannen, Al Swearengen, Lex Luthor
Some of the most interesting names, I think, came from Ian Fleming--
Auric Goldfinger, Hugo Drax, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Emilio Largo, Francisco Scaramanga, Julius No, Rosa Klebb, Irma Bunt, Felix Leiter, Vesper Lynd, Honeychile Ryder, Tatiana Romanova, Tiffany Case, Mary Goodnight, Kissy Suzuki, Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, Pussy Galore, Gala Brand, Solitaire Latrelle, Domino Vitali, Caractacus Potts
--and Quentin Tarantino:
Vincent Vega, Beatrix Kiddo, Marcellus Wallace, Elle Driver, Bridgette von Hammersmark, King Schultz, Hattori Hanzo, Esmeralda Villa Lobos, Perrier LaPadite, Hugo Stiglitz, Broomhilda von Shaft, Drexl Spivey, Santanico Pandemonium
For anyone still with me on this, here are several more, in no particular category. Remember these?
Randle McMurphy, Tom Wingo, Humbert Humbert, Ignatius Reilly, Yuri Zhivago, Sebastian Flyte, Shug Avery, Omar Little, Fast Eddie Felson, Owen Meany, Holden Caulfield, Hester Prynne, Jake Spoon, Lisbeth Salander, Clarice Starling, John Boy Walton, Norman Bates, Chili Palmer
In closing (and in the "I wish I had come up with that one" department), here are my five all-time favorite character names:
For what it's worth, here are some character names from my own stories: Ferguson Quillar, Pinto Bishop, Ward Grummond, Lou Mingo, Spencer E. Spencer, Bitsy Hamilton, Monique LaBont, Jabbo Harris, Gary Ironwood, Karim Valik, Madame Zoufou (Queen of Voodoo), Rufe Dewberry, Delbert Wooten, Ham Grogan, Cole "Shooter" Parrish, Abe Callendar, Solomon Wade, CollieBaby Johnson, Forrest DeWeller, Della Bloodworth, Punk Harris, Jasper Luckett, Panama Joe LaPinto, Woodrow Temple, Twelve Becker, Randolph Goodwynter, "Ducky" Duckworth, Doogie Sistrunk, Ophelia Reardon, Chunky Jones, Henrietta Allgood, Nicodemo Ross, Dexter Holtzhagen. I remember trying to tailor each of these to fit his or her character; whether that was effective or not is another matter.
Now, back to trying to figure out what to call the folks in this latest story of mine.