There are three men called Harry, Matt and Norman. Try to spot which is which:
Man 1: Six foot tall, with a tanned, strong physique. Teenage girls turn and watch him go by, nudging each other and giggling. He hails from Australia, or possibly California.
Man 2: Brought up in Kent, his parents are a Stockbroker and a distant relative of the Queen. He speaks with an accent that immediately picks him out as English and upper class.
Man 3: An IT technician, he spends his spare time in his basement flat playing computer games. He’s never had a girlfriend and although he’s 30 his bedroom wall is still covered with pin up posters that look like something out of FHM / Playboy.
Got it? Now let’s say I started the story from the point of view of a girl, watching these three guys at the bar. She eventually gets the courage to go up and speak to the hotty. She introduces herself. “I’m Norman,” he says. “These are my friends, Matt and,” he hid a smile, “Harry.”
Chances are, you had them as 1 – Matt, 2 – Harry, 3 – Norman and this little bit of dialogue has pulled you up short. What? The hotty is called Norman? Then which one is Matt and which is Harry? Now you’re skipping back, trying to work out what happened, which bit you misread, whether the “he” could refer to the geek. You’re outside the story and you’re going to completely miss the important plot point I’ve got going on about Norman’s secret crush on Harry, because you’re busy realigning the characters with the right names.
Books on writing don’t tend to deal with naming your characters, but it’s an area filled with potential traps, becuase most names come with stereotypes and vice versa. Like all stereotypes, we know they are unreliable, but we apply them subconsciously, both as writers and as readers.
In reality, the boy wizard has turned Harry into one of the most popular names in Britain, amongst all classes; Norman could well be Norman IV, named after generations of Normans back to when it was just a fashionable name, and we all know a geeky Matt and an ugly Matt, as well as hot- surfer-Matt, because it is one of the most popular names in the English-speaking world (In both the US and UK, it hasn’t been outside the top 20 since 1970). In twenty years, they will have a similar situation with Harrys.
There are other issues too. Different people have different experiences of particular names. I know someone who hates the name Greg, because she was bullied by a Greg, and someone else who thinks “Steve” is synonymous with “gorgeous” because her first love was a Steve. I’ve only known one Greg and not well, so I have no such hang ups with it, and my brother is called Steve, so I’m not necessarily trying to imply anything of the sort when I write a Steve. As an author, we can’t predict these personal prejudices in our readers, so unless we’re going to start from scratch and invent names (there are probably children called Gandalf and Samwise by now, aren’t there?), it’s just another gauntlet we have to run.
When we name our characters, we like to avoid stereotypes but we also strive to avoid confusion. If the fictional Morris family names their children Mark, Luke and Mary, we probably are trying to give you a clue about the parent’s religious stance; the parents of Skye, Bonbon and Morpheus probably wouldn’t encourage them to play with the Morris kids. But we also reserve the right to subvert your expectations occasionally. Just because we call the kid Clark and give him thick glasses, a bumbling manner and a small town upbringing, doesn’t mean he won’t be a superhero!