It's difficult for me to imagine my main characters until I name them in full, first and last name included. I recently made the honest mistake of using the name Louise Fletcher, not making the connection with the actor. Yes, I've seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, but I just didn't know the actor's name, even though she was a regular on Deep Space Nine.

My usual process of naming involves random name generators, building lists of possibilities to see how first and last names fit together, picking up books and opening them at random pages, thinking of people I know whose name I can mix and match with others ... in short, anything goes. Whatever gets me the name.

When I build the list, I make sure the names sound distinct and start with different initials. It ends up being something of a puzzle, where if I change one name I can end up trashing the whole list and starting again.

In the same bout of naming that turned up Louise Fletcher, I used the first name of Jules for my protagonist. Someone looking at my work said it reminded them of the character in Pulp Fiction played by Samuel L. Jackson. I'd drawn the same conclusion when I first thought of the name, but after much messing around with other possibilities, I kept coming back to Jules.

Making mistakes with first names seems so damned hard to avoid. I tried Jack on for size and quickly rejected it when I thought of Bauer, Reacher, and Taylor. Sticking to the Js, I moved onto John, Jake, Jerod. Aside from Jerod, which I rejected because it sounded too clean (and reminded me of a person from The Biggest Loser), the others had been used before, with characters that are part of the public consciousness, at least in crime fiction or film.

This led me to further insanity. Do I have to use the last name all the time, just to differentiate my character? Or should I come up with quirkier names that wouldn't even suit the piece, like Tyler Durden, or strategic misspellings such as Slyvestor Spallone?

The only thought that pulled me out of this abyss was that if I made my character distinctive enough, with a full personality all of his own, after a few chapters Jules would become his own man in the eyes of the reader. So I'm sticking to my guns, but I thought it was worth sharing this insanity, if only so I learn that there are others out there, like me, afflicted with the same illness.

I'm not the only one, am I?

(cue echo)

Am I?

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I often use baby name websites to come up with ideas for what to call my characters. You can often select the starting letter, the geographical origin and sometimes even the number of syllables. However, the best name I've ever found came from entering some term into Google (I can't remember what) and coming across an amateur map-making site and on the front page they had a map with two villages next to each other that together made the perfect name for the main character of my book.

I used to try and avoid using the names of people I know so as to avoid any suggestion that I might be basing it on them. After a few books and screenplays I had to scrap that idea, because I was running short on traditional names. I've even used my own name once, just because it sounded right for the character.

Jules might remind some people of Pulp Fiction, but it might remind other people of someone they know or Jules Verne or BBC Radio 1 DJ Judge Jules or possibly even Joules - the SI unit of energy (these last group of people are likely to be cardigan-wearing physicists). In my experience, characters take on a life of their own pretty quickly once they're on the page and that's enough to differenciate them from anyone else who might share their name.
Very often, they name themselves as part of the thinking about it process/early stages of writing. Johnny Banks very quickly let me know that he was Johnny Burns, for example. I have had to change names before because there ended up being too many similar ones - Angie, Alex and Angus couldn't continue to live in the same story, so the two lesser characters underwent name changes.

But I agree that the right name is so important - if your character insists on a particular name, then go with it. You're right that Jules will become his own man. Incidentally, I wouldn't have made the Louise Fletcher connection either, and it's a fact that people do share names - Nicky Tilsley (soap character) sorted out my last car loan, there's a Ty Power in an organisation I deal with through work. It doesn't need to be a big deal (but if you ever write a baddie called Bon Scott, I'll come and get ya!).
Names usually come first, before I have an idea what the characters are doing. Where I go with those names depends on how they sound in the story. In "Confession of a Spenser Fan" the lead interrogator's name was originally "Thad Cavett", but I wasn't thrilled with the matching "a" sounds. Also, if I find a character is speaking with a particular accent, I will change his name to match his background.

Another time I'd used the names "Jack Charles" and "C.J." in different stories and when one was published, I changed "Jack Charles" to "Tom Gregory" to distinguish the characters. I guess I wanted two first names in that case.

Finally, I steer clear of "loaded" names like Champion and Bruder that can easily distract readers. I don't want my characters' names to say very much about them. I want a character's actions to make an impression on readers that they attach to the name as they read further. Ian Fleming chose "James Bond" because it sounded plain, but no one who's a Bond fan thinks he is plain. Conversely the name "Moriarty" has become associated with villainy.
Yeah, it's a major issue. I like to believe there's some indefinable "right" name for every protagonist that comes along, and until you hit upon it there's the nagging sense at the back of your head that something's slightly awry.

I'm sure that a student of Literature could write entire theses upon the subject of protagonist names until the cows come home, and I'm pretty confident there are some vague "rules" one could draw up if one could be arsed... (For instance... isn't it strange how so many thriller/crime protagonists have short surnames, often of one or two syllables, and often with synonymous connotations..? I'm thinking of Morse, Reacher, Starling...)

The protagonist in Contract is called Michael Point for much the same reason. It simply seemed "right" - a straightforward, unsubtle, unflashy sort of surname: a fullstop in human form.

It's been a far harder nut to crack for the second novel. It's essentially a murder mystery in the Christie tradition (bunch of eccentric characters in confined space, one killed, whodunnit?), which means introducing eight very different individuals in rapid succession. I tend to find both as a writer and a reader that it's easy to get muddled when you're wading through multiple characters, especially if their names are all rather humdrum, so I've shamelessly gone a little gimmicky and used a Cluedo-esque conceit, naming each character after their profession: The Musician, The Mother, The Inspector, etc. It's turned-out to be a really neat little bit of pretentious flimflam, because it sets the whimsical "is-this-real?" tone for the entire novel, and really fucks about with expectations. Good fun, but probably not sustainable in a less experimental/alternative novel.

There's an acknowledgement at the back of my favourite novel (Scepticism Inc. by Bo Fowler) in which the author apologises to the staff of a local bank branch, whose names he found in an advert in a local paper, and lovingly ripped-off as the characters in his novel. But then, the same novel is narrated by a Supermarket trolly, so weirdness amongst character names is barely even noteworthy.
I have to admit I don't give it a lot of thought. Usually they suddenly seem to have a name. Somebody addresses them by name or their name pops up in my head when I think about them. Maybe in a longer piece I would have to take it more seriously.
I LOVE naming characters. I go even further than Nikki in that I can't have write ANY character without having named them. They might start out as something and change but it won't be too long after. I start with the first name and the surname usually follows. I'm having great fun naming the characters in my current WIP although I did have to resort to the internet for names that would suit a Tibetan monk. And I'd named one of my characters with names that can be both first name and surname. I kept calling him the name the wrong way round for about 3 chapters until I just decided that if that's what I kept writing then that's what he should be called. Spam e-mail is a good source of character names :o)

My first (and possibly only, ever) book was slightly different since the characters are called things such as Helena Handbasket, Fifi Fofum, Hal Litosis and sisters Aurora Da Greasepaint and Smilla da Crowde. Yes, I know, and I'm sorry.

I don't think you should worry about the Jules thing. Probably every name you choose, someone you know will have an association for it.
Use what works. That's the basic rule of thumb. Doesn't really matter if you pull names from the phone book, high school yearbooks, friends, family, or baby name generators. If it fits, use it.

O' course, then you have to consider stuff like too many names that sound alike (Alan, Alice, Alejandro), 'cause that's confusing. Or too many Smith, Jones, etc. Then there's the name recognition factor - I too had a character name that is fairly common, I had to change it 'cause a lot of my readers recognized it and couldn't get past the association. I wasn't even thinking of the real life person when I came up with it, but...better to change it than have readers convinced I was killing off the creator of a popular television show.

Jules works for your character, and you're right about making him distinctive enough to pull it off. That's definitely the key. Pulp Fiction or no, as long as you make your Jules his own man, you should be fine. Oh, and I'm one of those people who hate the multiple names for a character - you call him Jules, he better be called Jules throughout or have a very easily recognizable nickname or I'll end up thinking "now who the hell is this?" And enough of those, and I'll eventually stop reading the story or novel.
Totally with you there. One name per character. It's funny though, I'm reading RING right now and all the Japanese names aren't very distinctive to me, but that's just because I'm not used to them in general.
Speaking of Japanese names, I have to get mine from historical characters of the time or from contemporary (11th and 12th century) literature because Japanese names have changed and I don't trust the more modern ones. It's tricky anyway because there are different rules for naming aristocrats and commoners, clergy and laymen, babies and adults. There are even posthumous names.
The awkward thing is that I am so pressed to tell the story that I don't want to waste a lot of time on finding just the right name because it breaks my concentration. Sometimes, I have to make changes later because two names are too similar.
I'm working on 18th century Germany now, and the situation is very similar. Naming fashions change.
Naming characters is frustrating for me. I use a baby names book. I'll also leaf through phone books to get ideas for last names, or go through old yearbooks. I have a few rules though. I also check through character listings from places like Stop! You're Killing Me! and make sure someone else hasn't named their protagonist something really similar. I mean, imagine someone naming their PI Zach Taylor or their detective Sean Rebus - such obvious copies.

Jules alone never twigged Pulp Fiction for me. There's plenty of distance - PF was out more than 10 years ago. And 'Jules' is a bit more of a girls name to me, as I have a friend who goes by it.

It's when it's a real person, and someone others would know, that it's tricky. Google a name and if it comes up in combination high in the hits that you know you've got a problem. Google 'Louise Fletcher'. Top 10 hits make it pretty clear there's a real person, who is an actor, with that name.

Google 'Tymen Farraday'. The top 10 hits all pertain to my book - reviews, announcements, etc. Bear in mind that readers may slip on a title and try googling a name. Wherever possible you want to make it easy for them to find your stuff, especially if you're building a series. That's why titles are so important.

That is why I often choose slightly unusual names (although Tymen is a real name, the name of a child I once worked with). You don't have to worry about real famous people with the name, and they're more distinctive. Face it - there may well be a dozen protagonists with the last name Parker or Hill or the first name Jack, but names like Rebus, Bosch, Strange are so tied to certain writers they're very hard to copy.
I usually Google names of my MC, and I really should have with Louise. It's a good idea to have a distinctive name, but I'm probably sticking with Jules Nolan. It's already a name that references my own blog.
I'm sure you'll be delighted to know in WBW my one protagonist has the last name Nolan.

Well, actually, it's his middle name, but that's a whole other story...

I like Jules Nolan. It is distinctive, I think.

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