What’s in a name?

I’ve been thinking about character names having recently tried to complete this surprisingly difficult Sporcle quiz.  (Do you Sporcle?  You should.  Unless you feel the internet already provides too many distractions, in which case do not click that under any circumstances.)  There are so many associations people have with certain names—some predictable, if they’re the names of famous people or popular characters in books, TV shows, and movies, and others just because of people they happen to know.  I grew up under the impression that Lauren was not a terribly popular name since I never seemed to see it in books or hear it on TV—not uncommon, mind you, but rarer than the seemingly omnipresent Laura—but I now know that I was wrong since it was exceedingly popular when I was born.  In the last few years, I’ve come to associate my own name with a rather unfortunate type of person, thanks in no small part to Lauren Conrad.  After she came on the scene, suddenly it seemed that that was what a Lauren was and every time a Lauren cropped up anywhere, she was kind of awful.  Similarly, Bella has always been one of my favorite names and was up until recently the name that I had always said I’d give a theoretical future daughter, but that’s out now, because I wouldn’t want people thinking I’d named this imaginary hypothetical child after Twilight—which surely plenty of people are doing—since if people are going to make name-based assumptions, I’d rather they be the ones I’m actually aiming for.  I wouldn’t be opposed to naming children after literary characters, but I’d be selecting them pretty carefully, and I don’t think Ms. Swan would make the cut.

When I read, though, I’m also bringing those opinions to bear.  I think part of my attachment to 1984 initially sprung from my fondness for the name Julia.  Reading Bridget Jones’s Diary, for about half the book, I had trouble realigning my impression of Bridgets from the Bridget I grew up with to Bridget Jones—they couldn’t be more different.  Jo March was an early favorite because my grandmother is Josephine, but I’ve long had to resist holding Amy March against people I meet named Amy.

So tell me, authors, do you find yourself deliberating about the associations you have with names you might give your characters?  Do you ever name anyone after people you know, but then feel odd about making that character go through something difficult?  Do you worry that people you know will think you’re assigning their attributes to characters who happen to share their names?  Or do you deliberately avoid names of anyone you actually know and anyone famous, so that the names don’t bring anything to the table?  With so many names out there, how do you choose?

14 Responses to What’s in a name?

  1. Amy says:

    As someone who was named for Miss Amy March, I object! (I do confess I liked Jo better.)

    I hear what you’re saying though. Associations are important. I was devastated to learn that the MC of my most recent project shares a name with the MC of a series that just came out. It’s not a terribly common name and our books are in different genres, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that if this series takes off, I might need to rename.

    • Lauren says:

      Ha! My apologies. I genuinely had no idea there were people who love Amy March. I just always thought that whatever else one might think of Little Women, everyone dislikes Amy. I suppose everything really is subjective! Though much as I feel strongly about her, I do have room in my life for Amys–they just have to work at little harder at it.

  2. Oh wow, I’d forgotten about Sporcle *joyfully rediscovers* I completely bombed on that quiz :(

    I can’t really think of any book characters named Jennifer – mostly I got the 867-5309, hahah, Jenny, I’m going to call you!

  3. Rowenna says:

    I had never really thought about this until my most recent WIP. The perfect name for the character happens to be my paternal grandmother’s name: Ruby. Unfortunately, my fictional Ruby is a dancer at a dime-a-dance hall and kind of a flirt, and that just weirded me out. So I’m on the hunt for another name! Currently trying out Iris. It doesn’t work as well. Sigh.

  4. Kaitlyne says:

    Oh man. That site is worse that TV Tropes. I just lost about two hours. Though I admit, I was warned, and it was more fun than mopping the floors. 😉

    Anyway, as for names, I do consider names based on the impressions I get from them, and I do often choose not to name a character something if I think it will lead to associations with someone famous (i.e., Lauren, as you mentioned, though thankfully not having television and having spent much of the past few years out of the country has kept me from having it ruined).

    I’ve noticed that even if I use a name that I don’t personally like, I tend to be more fond of it by the end of the book. Heck, I’ve got a book I haven’t even written yet in which one of the main characters is pregnant, and the couple decides to name the baby Alice. I’d never been a fan of the name before at all, and now it actually makes me grin.

  5. Lynn says:

    Gee thanks, Lauren!!! I know, I know, you did warn us about clicking on your link, but I thought how much could it hurt to just go and see what Sporcle was all about. Well 4 hours later, it was 4 a.m. and I still wasn’t ready to go to bed!!! Thank goodness today was Sunday and I could sleep in late this morning!

    One of the minor characters in my wip is about someone I know. I changed the name several times, but every name I gave the character just didn’t feel right. In the end, I decided to use his real first name, but changed the spelling a little.

    The title of this same wip is also the name of the main female character which is a combination of three family members’ names. The story itself, however, has nothing to do with any of them.

  6. Picking names for characters is one of the joys of writing. I try to pick ones that subliminally plant in the reader’s mind what my character is like. For instance, for my romantic suspense I named the lead male Parker Swain because I wanted him to be rooted to the land (hence Parker) and Swain because that means country boy. He is the descendant of lighthouse keepers at a fictional place called Cape Destiny, North Carolina. The novel begins when beautiful Bliss Sherman and her company come to the cape to move the lighthouse inland. (Bliss–a little self-evident and Sherman because like Gen. Sherman she is coming from the North to upset the status quo.)

  7. Ryan Field says:

    I try not to be obvious, the way Franzen was with Lalitha, in Freedom, which we can all safely assume was a reference to “Lolita,” the younger woman.

    But for me the process of naming a character is always different all the time. I’ve even changed character names halfway through a book because I saw a name somewhere that suited the character better.

  8. Ha! I blogged along similar lines (with the same name for my post title!) a couple of weeks ago.

    It drives me crazy when authors give their characters “memorable” (ie. bizarre) names rather than just SHOWING us that the character is quirky/unique/embarrassed by her parents.


  9. LupLun says:

    There is good reason to at least do a Google search on your character’s name before setting it down. There’s some book being promoed right now — I forget the title — where the male lead is a scottish werewolf named “Connor MacLeod”. This is a perfectly good name for a scottish werewolf, in that MacLeod is a traditional Scottish surname and Connor means “lover of hounds.” The problem is that the writer has apparently never seen Highlander. That’s going to result in either a lawsuit or a batch of last-minute editing. ^_^

    • Lauren says:

      Ha! I wonder if that was a deliberate homage. I suspect you can’t copyright a name and that a trademark would have to involve more than just the name itself, given that it’s actually a name that people would have and not one the Highlander folks would have invented. Though I suppose you really can sue for just about anything. Didn’t Spike Lee sue Spike TV when it launched? If only he’d waited around to see what they were airing, he’d have known there was nothing even remotely Spike Lee-ish about what they were going for.

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