A lot, it turns out.
Like it or not, names are often our first impression, especially when dealing with the written word. They color how we see someone. Admittedly, depending on how a character is written, those impressions can be changed, but it is often an uphill struggle.
As a writer, I’ve found that I cannot even start until I’ve pinned down a good name. Others work differently; they can change a name after they’ve written a story, but, in general, I’ve found that a character’s name has a subtle influence on their personality, their actions, and how they interact with other characters.
Think about your favorite character. Would they lose something if they were named something other than what they were? Would Sherlock Holmes be as memorable as a Tom or a Will? Charlie has lovely alliteration with his chocolate factory, but the name itself leans towards something earnest. Would Heathcliff stick in your mind as much if he were a Dan or a Reggie?
Some characters – or historical figures – are so distinct in their names that they’ve pretty much ruined the name for the rest of us. Sherlock is an obvious example. Cain, Adolf, Judas. Even Harry’s a bit of a pitfall at the moment.
Names have associations. They vary from person to person, usually based on people they’ve known or characters they’ve been exposed to. When I choose a name, I weigh its associations for me, its meaning, and its ability to easily be confused with other people/characters. However, some of it is based on the name itself. If you don’t have any experience with a name, have never known someone with it, you tend to base your connotations off of its sound.
What characters can you think of where their name is a key part of who they are? What names appeal to you, and why?