Where Have All the Good Names Gone, Long Time Passing…

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.

Tweet: Tips for naming characters. Don’t make me giggle!
Tweet: When naming characters, here are some hazards and tips.

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  1. Remember Marvy Snuffleson and his friends Carl and Olaf?

    • jamiechavez says:

      Hahahaha. Yes! GREAT names! Of course, one has a little more leeway with children’s material, but the names used in Jungle Jam are inspired!

  2. Chandra Lynn Smith says:

    I researched names for my series I am working on. I visited a couple of old cemetaries in the mountains of West Virginia . . . the kind you ride four-wheelers to get to. I walked around and recorded last names. I found the ones that were common to the area. Then I searched for both common and unique first names. By doing this, all of my characters who are from the area the book is set will have names common to the area and it gives it more of a true feel.

    • jamiechavez says:

      FABULOUS idea! As an editor I think striving for authenticity in even the tiniest ways always improves the book. It won’t necessarily be noticed — what is it they say about good typesetting (or good copyediting)? If it’s good it goes unnoticed, but if it’s bad it sticks out like a sore thumb. Going to cemeteries is excellent not only for historicals but even for contemporary fiction.

  3. Sarah Thomas says:

    Jamie- What a great post! I have the worst time naming my characters. Generally, I know the main character and maybe one or two major players, but then I can’t think of anything. I try to avoid using the names of people I know (especially family). They already think I’m writing about them, no need to give them more ammunition. Now I want to go to Think Baby Names and rename half my characters.

    I’m reading “The Confession” by John Grisham and he has an investigator named Fred Pryor. This is driving me crazy! What, does he put on seminars in his free time? Is it an inside joke? Is Fred Pryor doing some sort of weird advertising? Did Grisham just run out of original names? Aack!

    • jamiechavez says:

      I just read a book review in Entertainment Weekly in which the reviewer lets us in on a secret: the author named all the major characters after his pet dogs. Oh my. :)

  4. jenny byrum says:

    Love, love, love this! Sometimes the first clue you get that a book is going to be less-than-stellar writing is the character names.