My daughter Vanessa, doing research on Edith Wharton, discovered that the writer had written most of The House of Mirth before deciding to change the name of her main character. She would not be Juliet Hurst but Lily Bart.
All right—Juliet doesn’t quite have the elegance or delicacy of Lily, and Wharton makes plain her character’s flower-like beauty and fragility. And yet I’m not sure I would’ve found fault with Juliet, had Wharton stuck with it. I might’ve liked the reminder of Shakespeare’s tragic heroine.
How important is a name in a novel? (Shakespeare comes to mind again–nope, go away.) One the one hand, you could argue that a character’s name is just one attribute, like shyness or having toothpick arms. Once we love (or loathe) a character we love (or shiver at) the name, and we can’t imagine that character having any other.
Take Harry Potter. It’s simple, unremarkable. For me, it conjures up a weather-beaten Englishman tending his primroses. It’s Harry the character who’s remarkable, who’s memorable. I’d want to read about his wizarding adventures no matter what his name. J.K. Rowling could have named Harry Ron and vice versa, and I’d be just as happy. Ron Weasley and the Sorcerer’s Stone–how’s that? Ron’s as easy to say as Harry; Weasley is quirkier than Potter, funnier There’s something about the word “weasel,” with the long “e” followed by the “sel” that ends up as”zel” when you say it aloud–it tickles my funny bone.
At the same time, all right–Potter might be the better name for Rowling’s hero. Harry, despite his talents, is without pretension and down to earth (I thought of a potter as someone potting plants, who literally has his hands in soil). Weasley might better suit the hero’s wisecracking sidekick. Rowling is awfully good at coming up interesting names that reinforce our understanding of her characters, without being obvious about it. (Usually. Notable exception: Malfoy, which roughly means “bad faith” in French. British readers are more likely to recognize this than we Americans are.)
The right name is important. All I’m saying is, the character is even more so.