I think one of the more overlooked aspects of writing when it comes to difficulty is naming. It seems like it should be such a simple thing, but as most parents will tell you, it’s hard to think of one that fits…let alone enough to populate an entire novel. I’ve even thought about scrapping characters when I couldn’t think of a proper name for them (which is probably not the best solution). There’s just a lot to think about when it comes to naming, especially if you’re as anal as I can be.
The Google Test
I think one of the more important things to think about when it comes to naming (at least for the names of your main characters) is how googleable they are. My spellcheck doesn’t like the word ‘googleable,’ but it also doesn’t like the word ‘spellcheck,’ so whatever. This happens most often when a name is too common or too associated with something else so that search results will be dominated by other options. I see this a lot with band names, actually–some bands, like the Eagles, manage to become popular enough that they apparently become more important than the original (although according to Google, the Philadelphia Eagles are also more important than the bird despite no one actually caring about that football team, so don’t read into that too much). But take a band like Love, one of my favorite psychedelic artists. I love Love, but seriously, what were they expecting with a name like that? You can go back 10 pages on the Google search without seeing a mention of them, so you’ll have to resort to (gasp!) typing the word ‘band’ after their name in order to get the results you want. Love, as much as I love them, have failed the Google test. Compare that to a band like Led Zeppelin, which doesn’t have to share its Google results with anyone.
Iconic characters have iconic names. I’m not exactly sure what the cause/effect relationship is there, but I know that characters like Aragorn, Luke Skywalker, Mario, etc. don’t have much competition for search results, because they’re very Googleable. I don’t think it’s a surprise that very few iconic characters are named John Smith or Joe Johnson.
There’s a way to take this too far, of course. If you’re really looking for an Awesome McCoolname to set your main characters apart, you may be tempted to use Xtreme Kool Letterz to change a more common name into something more memorable. I’m not going to dispute that adding an X makes a lot of things sound really, really cool, but remember one thing: a lot of people are crappy spellers. They’d have a hard enough time spelling a name the way it’s supposed to be spelled without remembering all the funky deformities you threw in there, which also makes your name less Googleable.
Another overlooked aspect of character names is consistency–names should, in general, sound like they could come from the same planet, if not the same country (exceptions can be made for names that actually do come from another planet). For instance, if your main character’s name is Sue, and her love interest’s name is Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfernschplendenschlittercrasscrenbonfrieddiggerdingledangledongledungleburstein-vonknackerthrasherapplebangerhorowitzticolensicgranderknottyspelltinklegrandlich-grumblemeyerspelterwasserkurstlichhimbleeisenbahnwagengutenabendbitteeinnürn-burgerbratwürstelgespurtenmitzweimacheluberhundsfutgumberaberschönendanker-kalbsfleischmittleraucher von Hautkopft of Ulm, you may run into some problems. Not only are neither of those names very Googleable, but Sue is clearly a name from the American South (source: Johnny Cash), while Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfernschplenden-schlittercrasscrenbonfrieddiggerdingledangledongledunglebursteinvonknackerthrasher-applebangerhorowitzticolensicgranderknottyspelltinklegrandlichgrumblemeyerspelter-wasserkurstlichhimbleeisenbahnwagengutenabendbitteeinnürnburgerbratwürstelgespurten-mitzweimacheluberhundsfutgumberaberschönendanker-kalbsfleischmittleraucher von Hautkopft of Ulm is clearly German. Likewise, Xue-Fang may sound like a cool name (it does have an X, after all), but it’s going to sound more than a little silly when her brother has a lame name like Steve.
Obviously, in a Melting Pot Nomenclature like the United States, a little more variance in name culture is expected…but even here, people are going to find it a little weird when you write, ‘Aerith and Bob walked down the street’ (proof that I’m probably the wrong person to ask about names–I often have trouble telling the ‘Aerith’ names apart from the ‘Bob’ ones in that link’s examples). This only increases in importance when you’re picking names that are supposed to have come from the same family or the same culture, especially if that culture is dissimilar to the ‘main’ one. One of the reasons J.R.R. Tolkein is considered so brilliant is that he created languages for each of his races/cultures, and then derived character names from those languages. In doing so, he helped set the stage to make those of us who are sane/not cunning linguists look bad with our hodgepodge naming systems.
Characters are not the only things that need to be named in most stories. Sometimes, animals and pets will need names. Other times, characters will even name their big, scary weapons. And let’s not even get into the many pitfalls of naming places–that’s difficult both because naming consistency becomes much more important, and because names that somehow survive scrutiny in the real world (like Weed) will never pass muster in the critical eyes of a reader.
Even leaving all that aside, however, there’s one more important naming aspect to tackle, and that’s the title. Take this blog post, for example. I could have named it something cool/clichéd like “Name’s the Same” or “What’s In A Name” or “What’s Your Name,” but instead I chose to go with something boring. That probably made you less excited to read this post. It’s the same way with book titles (and chapter titles, if you’re into that sort of thing): a book’s title is going to be it’s biggest identifying mark, and if it’s more interesting, the more interested potential readers will be. This is challenging because there’s such a fine line between a properly dramatic title and a melodramatic or pretentious one, and a humorous title and a stupid one. Truth be told, I’m not really sure where that line lies, or what makes one title good and another bad.
All I know is that the title should at least be Googleable.