Coming up with a name for characters can be one of the hardest tasks for a fiction writer. Once you’ve got the first name picked, do you stop there? Do your characters need to have last names? What about middle names? Names are one of the little writing speed bumps (they slow you down, but don’t stop you like writer’s block).
For me, a name is part of the holy trinity of elements I need before I can start drafting a story. The other two parts are the main character’s identity and what goal they have to accomplish. The name is usually the last part I come up with. It sets the tone for the character and his or her story. Because of that, I give all major and secondary characters first and last names. Minor people in the background tend to have one or the other, depending on how their reference in dialogue.
First name only
A character’s first name is probably going to get the most use. Friends and family will use this name in dialogue. It’s the name readers will forever associate with your story, for better or for worse. Best case: they name their pets after your character. Worst case: a red flag goes up in their head whenever they see or hear the name again. The latter might not happen if you use non-traditional names or make up your own.
Let’s say you visit an etymology website to find a real name. If you choose a first name based on its meaning, root word, or region of origin, those elements contribute to the character’s identity. It’s a little thing not every reader will search on their own. Those who do will feel like they’re part of an inside joke with the writer.
You might stop there. If it never makes sense for anyone to refer to your character by their last name — out of respect or derision — that could be a good idea. But before you move on, consider what else a last name could define about the character.
The lack of a last name could even be plot related. If your character is searching for their identity (for some form of catharsis, or to solve a story-relevant bout of amnesia), the revelation of a last name would be one of the pieces of the puzzle.
Last name only
Without tags or titles like Mr., Mrs., Dr., Duke, or Supreme Overlord, the lack of a character’s first name could be lost on readers. In and out of dialogue, using only the last name functions much the same as using the first name only.
If the character belongs to a famous or infamous family, their last name becomes name, identity, and reputation all at once. When other characters refer to this character by their family name, they assume he is just like the rest of them. It’s a good source of conflict if the character is the black sheep of the family, but a first name becomes almost necessary then. He’s not just a Lannister; he’s Tyrion Lannister.
The lack of a first name could also be part of the quest for identity I mentioned earlier. A character who is always referred to by their last name might search for something to set them apart. If the name comes from their occupation or station, the first name is how you pick out Jon and Ramsay from the rest of the bastards in the north.
First and last names (middle optional)
Together, a first name and a last name create a unique title that refers only to your character. It also offers you an opportunity to characterize relationships by which name other characters use. Harry and Draco aren’t chummy, and it shows in the clipped way they call each other “Potter” and “Malfoy.” But Draco tends to use last names even for his friends.
Continuing the Harry Potter metaphor, I’ll point out that Draco’s use of last names only is different from the way most people refer to the Hogwarts staff by their last name. In conversation with the staff, students use the respectful title “professor” before the last name. In more casual conversation, they don’t use the first name because it’s not part of the identity they associate with their interactions with that person.
If that sounds complicated, try thinking about your own teachers or college professors. Despite having a more personal/friendly relationship with some of my professors, it’s uncomfortable using their first names. I either use their last name, their full name, or — when talking to them directly — try to avoid using any name at all. When all else fails, I resort to simply calling them “professor.”
But that’s a real-life example of how a character’s use of another’s name defines the relationship. By giving a character a first name or last name only, you miss out on this layer in your writing.
Perhaps the most famous story to make use of the importance of both first and last name is Romeo and Juliet. Juliet’s not exactly subtle, either:
[Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare. Act 2, Scene 2.]
‘Tis but they name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.