Many years ago, my adult son happened to be talking to me while I was writing. He glanced at my desk and noticed two open books.
“Mom?” he asked, making the word sound as if it had three syllables.
I laughed out loud when I glanced down to see he was looking at two books filled with names for new babies. I assured him the books were purely for reference and that he would retain the title of my only son, also known as The Crown Prince.
Ask any writer and they will tell you that naming characters is trickier than you might imagine. In theory, it sounds like fun. I think I’ll name the murderer Mia, I say to myself. Mia has recently become a very popular name and since I am a writer of a certain age, I want my readers to know I’m very hip, a word that proves I am anything but. My killer is a 66-year-old retired schoolteacher who has murdered her husband. If she’s 66, she was born in 1955. It is doubtful her parents named her Mia, which originated from Miriam or Maria and means “mine” or “dear. Mia ranked just above zero percent in popularity in 1955. Naming my murderous teacher Mia might seem silly and distract my reader from the story. But if I look back to 1955, I could name her Deborah, Susan, Barbara, or Karen, and no one would blink because those names were in the top ten that year.
Let’s say our killer teacher’s name is Deborah. She’s murdered her husband because, after taking the best years of her life, her husband David was leaving her for another woman named Donna. Oh, but that won’t work on several levels. David is okay if he’s also 66 years old. His name was number two on the list. But the first letter of his name is a problem. It seems lots of readers skip over full words, especially names. They often only pay attention to the first letter. So, if Deborah is married to David, I may confuse the reader. Better to name the husband, David, and the killer-wife, Susan. Susan sounds like a schoolteacher to me. That’s subjective, but the name Deborah suits the other woman better. All those syllables work in a steamy love scene. “Deb-or-ah,” David calls out as he pulls her into his arms. Too bad. It starts with a “D” so it’s out.
You may have guessed the other woman can’t be named Karen, even though it’s right for the era if she is David’s contemporary. “Karen” has recently, and unfortunately for real Karens, become the nickname given in social media to women who act like jerks. Names that trigger impressions outside of the story are distractions from the plot.
That leaves us with Barbara or Mary if you’re sticking to the top five names for 1955. I worry that making Mary an adulterer might offend some readers. Barbara, or another name from the era, might be a better choice. Personally, I would go with number thirteen: Sandra.
It’s fun if you can pick a name that seems to fit the character’s role. Lola sounds like a marriage wrecker to me, but it may be too cliché. Let’s say our David’s paramour is younger and wants David’s money. Cliché plot but still being written successfully by many. Our “other woman” is thirty-five, born in 1986 when the most popular girl’s name was Jessica. Jessica fits my image of a sassy, confident younger woman who might wage a fierce campaign to steal David and his money from sweet Susan.
Naming characters is no bed of roses. Think about the names of characters in recent books and movies. What if Moira Rose in Schitt’s Creek had been named Elaine? Or if Elaine in Seinfeld had been named Olivia? What if Harry Bosch didn’t have a nickname and was called Hieronymus?
When has a character’s name pulled you away from a story? Why?