The last day of the year! Oh, it’s only March? Still? Are you sure?
Okay, well what ever it is, it is almost over. And today we will continue to name things. Shall we look at characters today? I think so!
Characters should have names. That is, unless they shouldn’t. The trick is to know which is which and when it is appropriate to name a character, when it is needed and when you shouldn’t.
First, let’s answer the big question that is floating around.
No, you do not have to name any character, at all, ever. There. I said it.
I do name characters, but not all of them. Of course we want to give our characters names. But is it really necessary? I’ve written an entire novel with the protagonist never having a name. First person narrative stories don’t generally ID the narrator, do they?
There are quite a few instances of characters with no names or characters that don’t need a name. And if you are in the group of writers that struggle coming up with names, then this list is even more important to you. But think about it for just a minute.
Who doesn’t need to be named?
Any background character, for sure. They aren’t in the book but for maybe a mention or two. Cashiers and clerks, for example. Is it important to the story that I say “Jane Redmann gave exactly 87 cents change to Mike as he rushed out the door.”? No, it isn’t.
Secondary characters don’t need full names. If I have a minor character that speaks a few lines or shows up a couple of times, I will give them a name for identification purposes to the reader. This helps keep things smooth. But I won’t give them full names. Maybe a Mike or Sarah or Jimmy. That’s enough.
Write the name of one of your characters at the top of your paper. Now give them a new name 25 more times. You can expand the names, use middle and last names, etc. Come up with 25 new identities for your character.
Your names also need to fit your story and timeline. Regal names given to royalty, simple (or nicknames) given to your country folk, Names with meanings for non-American characters, etc.
If you are writing a period piece and your main characters name wasn’t common (or even existing) at the point your story takes place, change it. Having a Bubba Jimmy John Joe Junior in the middle of the Queen’s court may be a bit off-putting.
Sometimes names are important, or they make the scene exactly what it needs to be.
Think about Men in Black
In the scene where Agent K and James Darrell Edwards III are riding down the elevator to MiB HQ is an important scene.
The whole point of MiB is to remove all identity from a person so they can operate as a ghost. They limit their names to letters of the alphabet (hence Agent K). Before he turns into a letter, the writers made a point to give Will Smith’s character an exceptionally notable name.
James Darrell Edwards III. It is American, it implies family ties with the 3rd generation of James’s. All three names are mentioned. He knows who he is and more importantly, he wants the world to know.
And on the elevator, He makes a point about his being noticed. “You chose me for me. So you recognized the skills.” James wants to be important, big, noticed. He then goes out on a limb to be extra noticed.
Look at the quote though. He is calling Agent K out but not by name. He is separating their identities as a single autonomous unit. “You” and “me,” There isn’t an us or we. He then says…
“And I want nobody calling me ‘son’ or ‘kid’ or ‘sport’ or nothing like that, cool?”
Here, James Edwards III is stating he doesn’t like the nicknames. Most of these names he says are names that a dad or parent would use, especially in a household where there are juniors and 3rds. It is an identity crisis. Who is James Edwards? Is is Will Smith? His dad, James jr.? His grandpa the original James?
Also notice that all the nicknames are short, little, succinct. He doesn’t like this. He wants to be a big name, he is going to make a difference. And then Agent K says “Cool, whatever you say, slick.”
In 5 words, Agent K acknowledged Jame’s presence and noted his concerns. Then promptly ignored them. Why? He answers that as the elevator doors open. When the doors open we see inside MiB headquarters, things and beings from galaxies and planets millions of light years away. And, of course Agent K says:
“But I need to tell you something about all your skills…As of right now, they mean precisely ‘dick’.”
This 25 second scene covers the entity of naming characters.
In the grand scheme of things, James Darrell Edwards III is a nobody, a nothing. He is a small speck of insignificant space dust. As are all of us.
That realization is important. And when James is renamed to Agent J, he is now a part of a group, something larger than himself, something larger than the whole.
You can learn a lot about naming characters from watching those that have come before you. You just have to pay attention.
Your characters are small and insignificant. It isn’t what they are called, but what they do. So give them names. Give them IDs so the reader know who is who. And then spend more time giving them great actions.