I have been giggling over the character names used in a book I’m working on. (Actually, I worked on it several weeks ago, but am just now getting around to writing about it, so no extrapolations may be made. And the examples that follow are my own Frankensteinian creations.) I’m not sure if this is a case of overthinking or underthinking but, folks, you’ve got to quit making up these crazy names. Really, you do.
Some of the names I’ve seen are just … well, over the top. I have trouble taking seriously a character named (ahem) Winchester Durango or Colt Houston (these are but pale imitations of what made me laugh the other day). Or brothers named Redson and Rayden Blackman. And when an entire cast of characters has names like Hailey, Brooklynn, Hunter, Madison, Jayden, Cheyenne, Brayden, Alyssa, Logan, Dallas, Faber, and Bailey, it’s just too much. Where are the Johns, the Roberts, the Annes, for heaven’s sake?
Me, I’m all about classic choices: family names and/or Biblical ones for naming actual offspring—we did both when naming the Boy—but I’m talking about fictional children here.
One of the best things to do is place your character in time. Let’s say you’re writing contemporary fiction (set in 2010 or ’11, say) and your protagonist is thirty-five; that means she was born in 1975. According to the Social Security Administration, the five most popular names for girls in 1975 were Jennifer, Amy, Heather, Melissa, and Angela. This character’s mother might have been born in 1950; the five most popular girls’ names that year were Linda, Mary, Patricia, Barbara, and Susan. Her grandmother, born in 1925, might have been named Mary, Dorothy, Betty, Helen, or Margaret. (I also use Think Baby Names, because you can find this sort of information not only by year, but by name. Search for the name Aidan, for example, and you learn its popularity in this country began in the 1980s.) I’m not saying you have to choose from the top five—Think Baby Names offers the top one thousand names each decade going back to 1880—but I do think you’d be wise to choose from the top one hundred, unless you’re using a specific name for a thematic or symbolic reason.
Pay attention not only to age of your character, but to his cultural background and where he lives (urban or rural; Paris, Texas, or Paris, France). Gender goes without saying, but you can use this to your advantage when working on characterization: call your female character Suzanna and that’s one image; call her Sam (from Samantha) and she’s probably a completely different gal.
Other naming hazards to avoid include:
- famous/notorious names like Adolph or Judas, due to the connotation
- distinctive first or last names of actors, or the characters they play on TV
- names that rhyme, like Mary, Barry, and Carrie
- alliteration, like James, John, and Jess
- names that end the same, like Grayson, Manson, and Addison
- and just stop trying so hard!
You don’t have to settle for Tom Smith or Mary White. You can have some fun. Joyce Magnin sure did in her book The Prayers of Agnes Sparrow. Start with Agnes, add her sister Griselda, friends Cora, Zeb, and Vidalia, and top it off with Studebaker Kowalski (Stu for short) and I’m in a swoon of delight. (Her second book boasts a protagonist named Charlotte Figg whose best friend is Rose Tattoo—’nuff said.)
If you need ideas, you can check the phone book, a baby-naming book, or do an Internet search for “random name generator.” (Or, you know, give Joyce a call!) Add a little creativity and mix. Just don’t take yourself too seriously.
UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.
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