Guy Fleegman (Sam Rockwell) : I'm not? Then what's my last name?
Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) : It's, uh, uh - -I don't know.
Guy Fleegman : Nobody knows. Do you know why? Because my character isn't important enough for a last name, because I'm gonna die five minutes in.
Gwen Demarco (Sigourney Weaver): Guy, you have a last name.
Guy Fleegman : DO I? DO I? For all you know, I'm "Crewman Number Six!"
Galaxy Quest (1999).
It happens all of the time. I need a character to deliver a line, make an observation or fulfill a function in the story and the reader thinks "Awe, too bad for them. They're toast."
More often, the character grows into something. In The Heart of the Matter, I needed someone to say "Yeah, I've seen that boat." The next thing I know his name is John, he's a former Navy SEAL and the story evolves with him in the middle. The widow of a police officer offers insight into her husbands demise and that's it. I lose control of my own character and she's Dr. STEM, with a million secrets. I'm struggling to find a name for Karen's mom - a subplot that is meant to fill in the blanks in Karen's complex personality. I meet someone in the ordinary course of teaching, her name fits my character perfectly (sorry, friend) and suddenly "Mom" is circling in a billion dollar Air Force plane issuing a critical order.
I don't really write characters. In a very real sense, they write themselves. So, today, some members of a writer's group to which I belong offered suggestions about a character. One, an editor who I trust implicitly, thought him an improbable presence. Point taken, so I make him something different and give him a work partner. And...
She is dark and brooding. She doesn't say much, doesn't miss anything and is clearly sizing Karen up. What is her story? What does she conclude?
She hasn't told me that, yet.