What’s in a Name?

My husband and I are currently going through final revisions of our (completely in our heads) list of names for baby. She’s due to arrive in 10 days, and her name is a bit up in the air. The middle name is set (mostly), and her first name is down to three. Our criteria for first names has always been this: you know how to spell it when you hear it, you know how to pronounce it when you see it, and it leaves no ambiguity as to the child’s gender. Sometimes those three things are easier said than done. It doesn’t help that all of our children have either an unusual first name or middle name, which means that everyone tells me, “I just can’t wait to hear the name you guys came up with.” Whew. That’s a lot of pressure. Not to mention it’s something our child will carry with her forever.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think there’s a similar pressure when naming characters in your novel. The right names “fit,” adding to the tone and story, while the wrong names can quite nearly ruin everything. You want your character names to be memorable but not distracting, and that can be a very hard line to balance. For every Harry Potter, there is a Renesmee Cullen (recently awarded the title of “Worst Character Name Ever.”)

I do not purport to be an expert, but as a lover of names, I’ve done more than my fair share of research on the subject. So here are a few of my tips for naming your characters.

Stay True to Your Time Period
If your story is historical fiction, due diligence should ensure your names are appropriate for the setting and time period. America is a melting pot of last names today, but 100 years ago many Americans were only one generation away from their home country, and small towns were rarely a mix of more than two or three nationalities. Check old census records to ensure the last names you choose accurately reflect the names used in that area. If the average Indiana town in 1890 was home to Brits and Scots, don’t use French last names unless they’re integral to the story.

The same advice is even more important for first names, and there are a number of sites online that can help you vet your choices. If your story is set in America after 1880, use this site to see if your chosen name is appropriate for your time period. For example, let’s say my novel takes place in 1915, and I want to name my character Adeline. The data from this site tells me Adeline reached it’s peak popularity in 1917, which tells me Adeline is an appropriate name for my time period. Now I want to name a secondary character Nicole. Hmmm, apparently this name was not used in the United States until 1937. If I went ahead and used Nicole, I’m risking drawing readers out of the story with this kind of anachronism.

Don’t Date Your Characters
A theme I’ve seen recently in a lot of YA is to give teenage characters names more befitting the preschool set. Often, this can give your characters a sense of being ahead of their time (which can be good), and can give your characters a little bit of longevity. In ten years, those reading your book will still get a sense they’re reading something contemporary. But naming trends are becoming shorter and shorter. Twenty years from now, your fresh sounding names might be dull and dated. Judy and Karen don’t sound like teenagers any more than Ethel and Agnes do. Use trendy names sparingly, and try to let the rest be a mix of timeless classics that fit characters of any age.

Don’t Make Up Names
If you’re anything like me, you read The Hunger Games, and marveled at the vast array of “new” names the author bestowed on her characters. From whimsical to sobering, they reflected everything from the character’s background to personality. These new names worked because they existed in the future, and they helped the reader become part of a world that had changed in every way.

But fabricating new names can just as easily work against you. For every Katniss Everdeen, there is a ridiculous Renesmee Cullen. Fabricating new names can just as easily work against you. If they aren’t pitch perfect, the reader will be distracted by your character – “Tamzania – but call me Tammy” – rather than absorbed in the story.

Do Your Research
Though this is especially true when writing historicals, researching names can help you avoid a number of pitfalls in contemporary novels, too. Next to no one named their daughter Nevaeh before 2001. And the popularity of names can vary widely based in different parts of the world, even between English speaking countries.  For example, the name Alfie was the 15th most popular name in England in 2012. In the same year, only 13 boys were named Alfie in all of the United States. That’s not to say that you couldn’t use either of those names for a 20-year-old American protagonist, but they might not be the perfect choice.

In 10 days, the world (OK – really just our close friends) will know our daughter’s name. I hope, in a few years, that my character names, and the fruits of my naming labor will be divulged. For those published, or unpublished – what paces do you put your character names through?

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