Make the Bartender More Interesting; or, Side Character Names

This one should seem pretty obvious:

Character names matter. And they matter the same way that accurate details matter in a piece of writing. They add a level of meaning and depth and interest that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

I also argue that it matters more for side characters. Sure, you can have a bartender named Bob. Bob is a good solid name. I have many friends who are named Bob. But is ‘Bob’ saying what you need the name to say?

So let’s imagine that you have a bartender named Bob in your story. He comes in, let’s say, two scenes. He gives a key piece of advice to the main character. Not a life-changing event now, he’s just making the Main Character think. I imagine that Bob, being a good solid name, would give good solid advice. If that’s what you want as a writer, great! Mission accomplished.

Now name the bartender Lacey (he’s still a he).
Now name the bartender Chad.
Now name the bartender Alexander Who Calls Himself Great.
Now name the bartender Adolph.
Now name the bartender Michelle (she’s a girl).

What happens to the flavor of the piece? Even if they all give the same solid Bob advice, there’s another layer at play. Do you listen to surfer Chad the same way you listen to some whacko calling himself Alexander the Great?

A fun exercise is to go into a smaller scene in a novel, and switch around the side characters’ names. Or even name a character that wasn’t named before. See what happens. See if there’s a layer that can be added, what depths there are to be explored.

Characters Writing Thoughts

jenny maloney View All →

Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.

2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Personally, I'd want to read more about a bartender named Alexander who called himself great. I see him as giving advice only he would think helpful. A self-glorifying, pompous loudmouth who always has not just an answer, but THE answer.

    Be a fun character to write.

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