Writers: Worried about your characters’ names?

I recently read a draft manuscript for a friend and I was immediately struck by the extremely weak leading character’s name. It bugged me like grit in my shoe from start to finish. It seemed a basic thing to try to get right, but also quite an easy problem to fix. Of all the various chores (easy and hard) a writer has to undertake to create a novel, I would rate character name creation as one of the most fun. Fun, but vitally important. I tend to collect names I think could be useful in the future for just this purpose.

I’ve just finished the latest draft of my new novel, and the first task for the (hopefully) final draft will be to reassess all the names I’ve been using. I know at least one of the main characters now has a name that isn’t quite working, and will be one of the first things on my ‘Find and Replace’ list.

For a masterclass in names the first port of call is always Dickens. I couldn’t write a post on this subject and not mention the master: Dickens. Dickens, and thrice, Dickens. Splendid. Let’s move on.

I happened to be reading the shooting script for the screenplay ‘The Usual Suspects’ concurrently with my friend’s draft, and the contrast with the naming issue was like sugar and lemons. It’s worth taking a look at Christopher McQuarrie’s excellent 1995 screenplay if you get a chance.

What a pantheon of inspired monikers McQuarrie summons up for us: McManus, Keaton, Fenster, Hockney, ‘Verbal’ Kint, Kobayashi and, of course, the criminal mastermind behind the plot: the brilliantly named Keyser Söze (pronounced ‘so-say’ if you’re not familiar with the work).

To my mind they don’t sound much like a bunch of steam engine enthusiasts out for the afternoon photographing locomotives; with a set of players of this strength, McQuarrie begins his storytelling process with an incredibly strong hand.

I’d doff my writer’s fez at Mr McQuarrie if:

1) I knew what the chap looked like.

2) I just happened to be walking about Hollywood in a fez.

So then… I just need to find up a better name. Er… where did I put that bit of paper?