Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Importance of Names

In December, I'm going to be an aunt.


And because I'm the family names nerd, I am going to be using my talents to help my sister come up with names that fit the difficult requirements. Because my sister's last name is Japanese, they want the first name to be American-sounding, but still be a name that can be easily written and spoken in Japanese without too much trouble. (It would be kinda awkward if half the family had trouble with the baby's name.) My sister knows I'm a names nerd because I have been studying naming trends since I was a kid. I own several baby name books and enjoy reading them for fun as well as for research.

My interest in names showed up in my writings; even when I was writing terrible fiction as a fourteen-year-old, I was putting a lot of thought into the names and coming up with realistic solutions. I wasn't just giving characters names I particularly liked (though sometimes I did really like a name I chose). I was giving characters names that made sense in their situations. I should make it clear, though, that I do NOT mean I gave them names that fit their personalities or their function in the story. Even as a kid I knew that was just silly. Names should be character-appropriate only if there's some reason their parents knew or would affect who that child would become, because names reflect the opinions and inclinations of the parents (or whoever bestows the name), not the child.

My first novel, Double Vision, was about twins. The protagonist's name was Cristabel. I didn't actually even like that name very much (I tended to not like names that included the "Chris/Cris/Kris" syllable), but I wanted her to have a name that's kind of a pain in the butt to say, and yet she insists on making everyone use her entire name instead of a nickname. Her twin brother is Benjamen, and I just figured a family that picks a three-syllable name for one kid would probably pick a three-syllable name for the other. (I don't know why I picked an alternate spelling for his name.) He goes by Ben, though, and thought it was ridiculous and impractical for his sister to insist on being called Cristabel. He called her Crissi all the time and pissed her off. It was a running gag for them to fight about it.

Because the plot revolved around a bunch of characters whose parents took experimental drugs and all had twins because of it, I got to flex my name-trend muscles and come up with names that made sense for all these sets of twins. Parents are much more likely to choose names that share a first initial, a rhyming sound, or a theme if the siblings are multiples, though of course some parents will give their children unrelated names regardless. So I had some twins with rhyming names (Cara and Sara, Dustin and Justin) some twins with same-initial names (Nadia and Natalie, Laurel and Lilly, Carmen and Candace), some twins with same-theme names (Misti and Celeste, Laurel and Lilly), and some twins with unrelated names (Craig and Mike, Zachary and Brian, and of course the protagonists). This was probably the most realistic aspect of the story because obviously other than that it was terrible.

I went on a naming rampage for my next book. The protagonist was Skyler--a name I'd heard and liked shortly before starting the book--and I gave her a ton of older siblings mostly just because I liked naming people (Joyce, Zoe, Dominic, and Alex). And then she had a female friend named Austin, who in turn had a female friend named Charlie (not sure why), and then Skyler started dating a boy named Jason and suddenly all his friends were in the picture. They not only had names (of course) but also had nicknames--every one of them had a ridiculous nickname of some kind and I had such a fun time making little charts noting who was who. I remember having a minor character named Shasta. (I had a friend with that name when I was a very young child, before I started elementary school.) My sister read part of the book and told me I shouldn't name minor characters things like "Shasta" because that's such a memorable name and she was a throwaway character, and giving her a name like that could make readers think she was important. I disagreed, of course, because when people name their kids things they don't consider whose story they might be a minor character in, but given that feedback I did end up changing the character's name to Sharon. Who knows why.

I think it was about that time that all the girls were playing that MASH game to pick who they would marry, and I developed a complicated version of it to figure out how many kids we'd have and delighted myself for hours coming up with names for them. (I would seriously fill in the blanks to assign my adult self umpteen children just so I could name them and draw pictures of them and give them all their very own pet cat.) In biology class, we studied genetics and learned a silly game for flipping coins to come up with our future children's genotype and phenotype for various traits, and my sisters and I played the game over and over, enabling me to draw the result--and, of course, name it.

The House That Ivy Built--the series I wrote in my college days--was similar as far as names went. Huge cast because I liked making people up and naming them. Some had very odd names (though that makes some sense because not all of them are from our dimension). I gave my protagonist a ton of roommates and got busy naming them all--Adele, Alix, Bailey, Bradleigh, Cecily, Dax, Ivy, Jared, Keenan, Miki, Neptune, Nina, Perry, Peyton, Robin, Tab, Thursday, Weaver, Zeke, Zoe. (I must've liked the name Zoe a lot to use it for two different books.) Just about everyone's name had some kind of history behind it. Some of them had been named after someone else. For some of them, I looked up the history of the name and determined whether it matched their ethnicity (and had a reason for it if it did not). I completely made up some of the names (hey, I think the name "Bradleigh" is cute for a girl!), and I stole some of them from media I liked (a character on Avonlea was named Cecily and I liked the sound of it). And I kept introducing new characters and putting a lot of thought into what to name them.

And then, in recent years, even though I still really enjoyed paying attention to naming trends, I more or less stopped being strategic about the name choices for my protagonists. Most of them just came from nowhere. For Bad Fairy, it was based on a short story I didn't put much thought into, and I kept the same names. When deciding on a name for my bad fairy, the name that came out was Delia. Because I'd recently watched Beetlejuice and the flaky mother character had that name, and I'd had yet to hear it elsewhere. The names for the other fairies were pretty random too. I either made them up or just gave them old-timey-sounding names. (I figured fairy culture as far as names went would stray toward picking "nature" names more often than humans would, but since they share a language and a LOT of their culture with humans, I thought they'd have a lot of the same names.)

For Joint Custody, I wanted to give the protagonist a very weird but established foreign name to reflect the protagonist's Irish heritage, so he is named Bainbridge and goes by Bay. Having a weird nickname is one of the silly things he bonds with a neighborhood girl over, because her name is Marcella and she goes by Marz. (All the characters in Marz's family have odd names. Her older sister is named Vanilla and her younger sister is named Tallulah.)

For Finding Mulligan I didn't have a reason for naming the protagonist Cassandra, and I don't even like her nickname (Cassie). There were a lot of made-up names in that book too (especially in the fantasy world part of the story). I just pulled sounds out of the air and ended up naming people things like Laro, Milani, Sondi, and Nickel. Plenty of ordinary names too, like Margo, Lisa, Becky, and Barbara.

And for Stupid Questions, names just literally showed up on the page as I typed without me making any decisions on purpose. Summer seemed like a nice name for the protagonist's love interest. His name ended up being Nick. (I never say it's short for anything. Maybe it isn't.) His best friend is Bart. Nothing out of the ordinary. (You later find out that Summer's mom's name was Autumn. She was apparently into theme naming.)

Fairly ordinary names I've used in short stories include Megan, Shannon, Chris, Jamie, Emily, Kelly, Brittany, Mark, Tyler, Susan, Dawn, Iris, Grace, Laurel, Catherine, Cameron, Tamara, Stephen, George, David, Elizabeth, Claudia, Nancy, Ed, Bill, Darrell, T.J., Lillian, Valerie, Courtney, Anna, Casey, Avery, and Thomas. Unusual or made-up names from short stories include Brady, Kamber, JeLin, Seaira, Balthazar, Derika, Hendrix, Joplin, Lihill, Alet, Cyani, Mymei, Teinan, Cat, Bonne, and Windy.

Once I name people, though, I generally don't change the names. I had to do that once in The House That Ivy Built with a character named Adam, because of an association for his original name that I was kind of embarrassed about. And I never got used to it. It's about as permanent as naming a child, so I have to explore the options with proper respect. The characters will have to live with my decision, and so will I.

Anyone who has thoughts on what they do to name their characters is welcome to comment. :)


  1. Yay! Congratulations on being an aunt soon! How exciting!

    I'm a little name-obsessed myself. Sometimes I think one of the best parts of writing is getting to use all the names I couldn't use for my daughter. After all, there are a lot of beautiful names out there, but it's not like I could give twenty or thirty of them to one little girl. That's what my characters are for. :-D

  2. I love doing the name thing too, but usually it's just a name that feels right. I've started some novels and changed the name because it just wasn't working. And usually I need to have the name set in my head even as I'm starting to develop the idea in my head.