One of the benefits of the first-person viewpoint is that the writer doesn’t have to refer to the protagonist by name. Everything in an ‘I’-novel is ‘I’, and occasionally ‘we’. The writer can keep on using ‘I’ as much as they like. A character with no name can exist quite happily in the first-person viewpoint (and in a screenplay, because films are so visually orientated).
Things are more complicated in the third-person viewpoint. There isn’t an ‘I’ option to differentiate the protagonist from other she or he characters. And so, the protagonist requires a name.
It’s technically possible to avoid referring to a character by name through the use of a generic term or by describing their role. A character could, for example, be called ‘the old man’, ‘Mother’, ‘the Captain’, or ‘the boy’. This simplicity can give the writing the quality of an allegory or a parable. But it can also be annoying or draw attention to its own artifice.
Ideally, the main character’s name should be easy to remember, snappy, and, to avoid confusion, not too similar to any of the other characters.
Ian Fleming referred to James Bond in his novels by using his surname. He is ‘Bond’. While this can sound a little formal and impersonal, it’s a widely used convention. It has the advantage of creating a layer of distance between the writer and the character, which may be advantageous. It also has a certain authorial quality about it.
Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, is Leamas. In the more recent Jason Bourne series, Jason Bourne is ‘Bourne’. And likewise, Lisbeth Salanger in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Salanger. (I had to go back and check this, because I couldn’t remember. That’s the power of tags and conventions. Used correctly, they are remarkably invisible.)
Another option is to refer to a character by his or her first name. This immediately puts the reader on a more familiar, personal, and intimate level with them. It also has a literary connotation about it. Ishmael Chambers in Snow Falling on Cedars is Ishmael.
A first name can help the reader empathise with a character who has annoying faults or who exhibits behaviour that’s likely to alienate the reader. Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley, for example, is Tom.
An alternative to using a first or a second name is to use their nickname or an informal version of their name. In Antony Johnston’s The Exphoria Code, Brigitte Sharp is Bridge to her friends and close colleagues, and she’s Bridge to the reader.
Finally, there’s the matter of choosing the actual name.
Names for characters can carry symbolic meaning, resonance, or insinuate certain qualities. The title Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid says a lot just by using the characters’ nicknames. Thelma and Louise isn’t as explicit, but it does convey something. With Harry Potter, Harry sounds a little cheeky, but Potter tells us that he’s ordinary. He’s like us. Or is he? The symbolism of the name Truman in The Truman Show is only revealed as the story unfolds. Truman’s motivation is to discover the truth about himself, to literally be a true man. Donnie Darko says a lot about the character and the tone of the film. Edward Scissorhands is almost the whole film in a name.
James Bond is a man of his word. His word is his bond. It sounds reliable, efficient, and transactional. Brigitte Sharp is sharp by name and sharp by nature. George Smiley is George which suggests Englishness and solid reliability. It’s quite a traditional name. And Smiley is ironic because he seldom smiles or seems particularly happy.
Ishmael Chambers is stuck ruminating about the past in the rooms of his mind. Jason Bourne is born again, this time without a memory of who he really is.
Sometimes a character’s name has an obscure symbolic meaning. With Darth Vader, famously, Darth means dark and Vader is Dutch for father. He is the dark father.
A character’s name can reveal his or her class and status. It can inform the reader that they are an ordinary person, a ‘Joe Average’, a ‘little person’, someone like us.
Names can reveal significant traits, a personal strength or a weakness. It can state the thing that a character is searching for, their motivation, or a force they might not even consciously realise about themselves. It may be literal, or sound vaguely like another word, or it can insinuate meaning by association and resonance.
Biblical and mythological names are commonly used in fantasy and science fiction, as well as specially invented names, which can be created for poetic value or to function as an onomatopoeia. The numbers in the name THX 1138 from the film THX 1138 suggests a loss of individuality and humanity.
Names can be used for comic effect, to sound silly, self-important or to suggest the opposite of what a character is actually like.
There’s also the issue of gender and ethnicity. Surnames have another bonus — they are gender neutral. (The names characters use when referring to other characters can also be revealing.) Names can show where a character comes from ethnically, or perhaps not, both offer potential ways for a writer to subvert the reader’s expectation.
Character names always require careful consideration, even if they are only there for practical reasons (like adding basic realism).