Now that’s what I call a name. Just say it out loud…Remington Steele. It just rolls off your tongue, doesn’t it? And the name was so perfectly suited for its intended purpose. For those of you who might be unfamiliar, Remington Steele was an American television series, starring Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan, first broadcast on the NBC network from 1982 to 1987. The series blended the genres of romantic comedy, drama, and detective procedural. The premise was that Laura Holt, a licensed private detective played by Stephanie Zimbalist, opened a detective agency under her own name but found that potential clients refused to hire a woman, however qualified. To solve the problem, Laura invents a fictitious male superior whom she names Remington Steele. Through a series of events Pierce Brosnan's character, a former thief and con man whose real name is never revealed, assumes the identity of Remington Steele. Behind the scenes, a power struggle ensues between Laura and Mr. Steele as to who is really in charge, whilst the two carry on a casual romantic relationship.
Let’s get back to the name (because that’s really my topic of discussion today) and everything it conveys. Strength, stability, decisiveness, upper class, controlling personality, to name just a few that come to mind. And that’s the point, isn’t it? Laura Holt’s character (and the show writers) chose that specific name to imbue those traits on a figurehead to bring in clients, but over the course of the show we watch as the Pierce Brosnan character tries to live up to those characteristics – with both comedic and heartfelt results – while at the same time slowly bending perception to match his own.
When we’re choosing names for our own characters, does the same amount of forethought go into our choices? I’m betting your answer is yes. Heck…some of us have even taken a pseudonym to publish under because our own name isn’t “catchy” enough. Think about it…would Catching Fire have sold as many books if Katniss were named Sally instead? Or what if Tris from Divergent was named Linda? I’m not trying to say that character names make or break a book – good writing is good writing no matter what names they use – but I do believe it can be impactful.
But there are times when I feel writers try too hard with the names they pin on their characters. I recently finished a trilogy where the main character was called ‘Jazz’ – and he was a boy. Personally, I associate that nickname with a girl and by the end of the series I found his name almost a distraction, especially when other characters starting pointing out that he had a girl name. To me, this was a case where the writer could have settled for something more mainstream and delivered a superior read.
In my first two books (Mystery/Thriller) my character names were really pedestrian. Lee, Dianne, Billy, Kent, Raymond. See what I mean. I didn’t really put that much effort into the names for those because, frankly, I wasn’t sure anybody else besides my immediate family would ever read them. But for my latest effort – Moving Fear (YA Paranormal/Mystery), the one that helped me land an agent, it was different. So much so that my main character ended up with two names. His given name is Chace…but he’s fifteen years old…rebellious…and upset that his father has remarried so soon after losing his mother to cancer. He decides to go by his middle name (Knox) so his step-mom won’t call him by the name his real mother used. His sisters and grandma refuse to buy-in to what they deem is an adolescent tantrum and adopt the change, but others just go along…or don’t know any better. The name becomes more than an identifier – it becomes a way to drive conflict.
What about you? What was your thought process behind how you named your characters? Was there one? Do you think there are any trends in current literature that involve character names?