Updated: May 2, 2021
Have you ever thought about the names of the characters in a movie you are watching or a book you are reading and wondered where the names came from? If you haven't, then why are you reading this?
Names are important. They can represent the character, they can be memorable, they can encourage your buy-in to their story. Who can forget Pussy Galore in James Bond from about 50 years ago. Would Jason Statham be playing action roles if he had been named Cedric Wimp? Would someone named Dick Smallforest even get an audition for a role in an adult movie?
I suspect that every writer has their own process for naming their invented characters, adding personality traits and physical descriptions as they go along. You might expect that the writer sits at his/her keyboard and clutches these names from thin air, caring little about their origin or similarities to real people so long as they fit the writer's requirement for their highly personal invention. Maybe that happens in some cases, fuctifino!
My process is to create a character and link that character to somebody I know, then inject habits and traits from the real person into the invented character. In the first draft the real name will be used in the manuscript, to help me remember what and who they are. At the end, the real names can be changed into story names very quickly and easily thanks to the tools available within Word and other writing packages. This is particularly helpful for describing how someone looks or how they speak in conversation. (Writing conversation is extremely difficult, the only consolation being that the page fills very quickly).
My main character (MC as writing geeks refer to it) name was inspired by a companion from Doctor Who. I wanted a name that had two versions which were not immediately obvious. Carol and Caroline - too obvious. Sue and Susan - nah. Amelia and Amy - yes, bingo, got it. Of course I then gave her Jessica as her naughty name, but that's a story for another day.
There are hidden dangers when naming characters based on real people in a work which is published or broadcast. Some are delighted to be included, while others can take great offence. As a first time writer, I took the positive platitude reaction from some people and proceeded to use their real name in the story, thinking they would be pleased. They were not, and a relationship has been significantly damaged. Whereas the inspiration for a main character was delighted to be included, warts and all, and he tells everyone about the terrible nickname I gave him in the books.
Naming characters is a bit like Russian Roulette. There are risks. Badly named people in a story can ruin that story for some readers. Brilliantly named characters can prove to be a letdown if poorly written or developed. Thankfully, there is no gun, no bullet, no shaking hand, meaning that the badly named character in the finished product is unlikely to be the cause of a senseless death, making it nothing like Russian Roulette at all.