What’s in a Name?

cynthia~ By Cynthia D’Alba

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

 Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

(Act II, Sc. II)

Will Shakespeare and I must part ways when it comes to names. A hero by another name may not be “as sweet.” Names can play a large role in your character’s identity. For example, in J.D. Robb’s In Death series, would Roark be as sexy if his name were Wilbur? Wilbur just doesn’t have the same ring as Roark, does it?

The names you give your characters plays as major a role in your story as other traits and habits. Character names should help define the character…who they are, where they’re going in life, where they’ve been. Character names need to be unique to your character and in getting the name right, you build in a memorable element to the story. Who doesn’t think “Southern Bell” when Scarlett O’Hara is mentioned?

Names matter and spending the necessary time to discover your characters’ names will be time well spent. Did you catch what I said? Discover your characters’ names…not assign a name to character. I suspect there are quite a few authors who could tell you a story about how the character in the current WIP insisted his/her name was wrong and must be changed.

But there are some elements of naming that authors should keep in mind.

  1. Make sure the name is age appropriate. Choosing a name that is popular today but wasn’t in the 1880’s (when your story is set) will pull the reader out of the story. Let’s face it, Tiffany wasn’t a common or even known female name in the old wild west. You’d want to use maybe Mary (#1 name in 1890) or Ruth (#6 in 1890). So how do you find out what names were popular in a certain time period? Here are two searchable databases that will help. Check the Social Security Name Popularity List for the time period you’re working in. Another fun site is Voyager Baby Names. Keep ethnicity in mine as you search as that can make a huge difference in the name you select.
  2. The day of exotic names or unpronounceable names has passed. Readers want to identify with your characters and that might be difficult if your character’s name is Zyonicaebec or Crystal Rhinestone. If you are writing futuristic stories, then I would expect the names to be different than today’s (or yesterday’s) names. We don’t know what names will be popular 2000 or 3000 years from now. What I do know is that you don’t want readers to stumble over the names, or for the names to pull the reader out of the story as (s)he tries to decide how to pronounce Zyonicaebec. You have just spoiled that reader’s experience. Make your names easy to spell and easy to say.
  3. Lovers and family members will use pet names. Don’t forget to build pet names or terms of endearment into your stories. If I ask, “Are you a cupcake or a babe?” would you know what I’m talking about? If you read the Stephanie Plum series you would have recognized the terms of endearment given her by Morelli and Ranger. In my first book, Texas Two Step, my heroine’s brothers call her “kitten.” That nickname plays a vital role late in the book in defining Olivia’s (my heroine) relationship to her ex-husband. Look for it! It wasn’t an accident or fluke when I wrote that scene.
  4. Watch for overused names. For heroes, the name Jack (or Jackson) is being typed over and over by aspiring authors. Don’t get me wrong. Jack is a great name. Tough-sounding. Good old, hard-working American name, but using Jack is so unoriginal, not what you want with your story. The same can be said for Kate (or Katherine or Catherine.) Guess what the hero and heroine names were in my first WIP? Yep. You guessed it. Jack and Kate. 🙂
  5. Be careful using names that can be associated with popular cultural references. Going back to Scarlett O’Hara…That’s not a name you’d expect to see given to a heroine born and raised in Michigan or Maine. Scarlett O’Hara conjures up the images of Southern Bell, hoop dresses, a drawl in her talk. But what if her mother was obsessed with the movie and that’s where the name came from? Great! But be sure to work the impact on the heroine’s life of having that name. The same could be said if you use Jessie Jackson, or Oprah, or Elvis. All these names can evoke an image that will have an impact on your story. On the other hand, Robert Crais writes a series that stars Elvis Cole. His mother was a trouble woman who changed Elvis’s name on a whim. His name influences how he sees himself and how he interacts with the world. I’m not saying you can’t use names with popular cultural elements, but to remember what having that name can mean to your hero or heroine and their view on the world, or even how others view your character. Having a certain name can make others in the story have certain expectations of your characters…expectations that you will need to either confirm or (better yet) blow up!

Have you come across names that “violated” these naming rules? Did that affect your reading or enjoyment of the book?

So tell me your considerations when naming a character. What tips can you pass along to your fellow authors? Got a really cool naming site you can share?

I was born and raised in a small Arkansas town. After being gone for a number of years, I’m thrilled to be making my home back in Arkansas living in a vine-covered cottage on the banks of an eight-thousand acre lake. I started writing on a challenge from my husband in 2006 and discovered having imaginary sex with lots of hunky men was fun.

I love to hear from readers and there are lots of ways to find me. Online, you can find me most days at my website, or follow me at Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Goodreads or Pinterest. Or subscribe for my newletter. Email me at cynthia@cynthiadalba.com 

To send me snail mail, write to: Cynthia D’Alba   PO Box 2116   Hot Springs, AR 71914

4 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?”

  1. I’m also a fan of the Stephanie Plum books. I’m rooting for Joe over Ranger (whose real name is Carlos if I remember correctly).

    I use Baby Name Finder for research for my contemporaries. I like to read the articles about what names from the 20s are cool again and what will never come back in style. I’m very fortunate in that I have a family genealogy book so I can look at it for ideas of what names were popular in the past.

    And even though Wilbur wouldn’t be a great name for a hero, there could be a hero who goes by a nickname and guards his real name with a vengeance and then at the very end the heroine finds out it’s something a little out of date.

    Thanks for the interesting post on the blog.

  2. Marilyn – Cupcake! 🙂 I love Ranger. He’s great for an affair, but for a lifetime? Nope. That’s why I’m Cupcake…Joe is the one! 🙂

    And I agree about the hard consonant sounds. I think it “sounds rough and tough” to say, and plays (somehow) on our female subconscious.

    Maggie!!! SO glad you stopped by. Personally, I think Maggie Wells is a great name for a heroine! 🙂

  3. I read a book where the hero and heroine’s names started with the same letter. Too much alliteration and I had trouble keeping them separate. The hero in my first book was Jack. He couldn’t have been anything else though. Nothing else fit him. I’ve used Nick and Max too. There’s something about those hard consonant sounds in a man’s name. I think that’s why Luke and Jake are popular too.

    Good food for thought! And by the way, I vote for cupcake. 😉

  4. Not necessarily a violation, but I have to admit that one of my favorite hero names comes from Ruthie Knox’s ‘About Last Night’. Of course, it might be my useless PoliSci degree talking, but who can resist a man named Neville Chamberlain?

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