One of my favourite character introductions comes from a Paul Simon song:
“Fat Charlie the Archangel sloped into the room”
In less than ten words we’ve got a character, a mystery, a location, action, motive… Almost as many narrative features as words. It’s pure writing, not a word wasted and each syllable working its arse off.
Any writer wants their words to punch their weight. But you can have heavyweight paragraph after paragraph and it means nothing if you fluff the most important element of a story – the characters. Which means, mostly anyway, names.
Dirk Gently. Arthur Dent. Leo McGarry. Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Switters. Allie Cone. Lia. Rachel Verinder. Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke.
Some names make characters stand out, some fit them comfortably into the background. Some carry inbuilt personalities, some blank canvases. Get the wrong name and it’s fatal. After all, if the author can’t buy into a character then there’s no chance of a reader giving a cuss about them.
This is probably why I often find fiction such a drag – I get stuck on the first leap and can’t give a name that doesn’t sound affected to anyone. It’s galling, especially when Cormac McCarthy’s The Man is a bristling personality with no real name whatsoever.
But that’s writing. As far as I can see, you can’t force it. It’s halfway between closing your eyes and allowing the story to lead (or drag) you along and keeping your eyes wide open so you don’t miss an eyecatching side-road along the way.
From what I know of Tolkein’s approach to writing – that is, an academic’s thorough approach to history and lineage – it’s probably too much to hope that he felt the same surge of excitement when Strider’s real name, noble and rousing, is revealed. But I’d still like to think the old guy had a smile on his face whenever the name presented itself.
A name has to fit the narrative. It’s probably best, then, to let the story name the characters for you, while you keep your antenna up in case a peripheral personality sticks really well or a central character’s name basically stinks.
That said, I think the best name I’ve ever come up with came pre-packaged with its own story. The name was the beginning of the narrative. I’ve only written two verses of my poem Eridris’ Voice but the whole scope of it came along with that name.