Posted On January 14, 2018 by Print This Post

What’s in a Name? by Becke Martin Davis

What’s in a name? I’m probably the wrong person to tackle this subject. After all, I did name my first cat Anastasia Shana Elisabeth, only to realize later than she was a he. My daughter carried on this tradition when she adopted a cat, named it Lola, and later saw a lost pet notice for the same cat: “Romeo.” (The story ends well – she got to keep “Romeo,” who she renamed Charlie, and she and his original owner became friends.)

 

I’m a little obsessed with names. When I approach a new story, I invariably start with the names of the main characters. Once I have their names, their personalities reveal themselves to me. This is one of my personal quirks, and it can become very annoying when the developing character isn’t a good fit with the pre-selected name. It’s like my own personal Jenga. Once one block falls, the whole character collapses.

 

In some cultures, naming a baby is a ritual surrounded by tradition, firm in the belief that the child, in a sense, becomes the name. Whether the name bestowed honors an ancestor or embodies an ideal, the process of choosing a name is not something to be taken lightly. I think this applies whether the child is fictional or biological.

 

In my own case, my parents saw “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” – a play, not the Shirley Temple movie – shortly before I was born, and decided then and there that if I was a girl, I would be named Rebecca. I was born in Garland County, Arkansas and came very close to having Garland as my middle name. As I recall, the second choice was Abigail, which my parents ultimately shortened to Gail. The only time I was ever called “Rebecca” or “Rebecca Gail” was when I was in trouble. Most of the time I was just Becky – or, my dad’s version – Becky Ghoul. I changed the spelling to Becke in my freshman year of high school, when three Beckys in the same homeroom became confusing. I’ve kept that spelling over 50 years.

 

I’ve always been fascinated by names. I have sheets of paper, saved from elementary school, where I covered every square inch with names of my future children. I would have had to procreate like the legendary Bridgertons to use half of those names. Since I ended up with just one boy and one girl, I compensated by giving each of them three names.

 

Long before I had children of my own, I kept my naming skills polished by naming multitudes of cats. Many years passed before I realized my files of favorite names could be a handy reference for character names. Even when I’m not mentally framing out a story, I like to pass the time by browsing sites featuring the most popular names over the years, not just in this country but across Europe, too. I can spend days digging through ancient Celtic names and their meanings. Beware, though. Once you decide the meaning of the name has to match the character, you may find yourself digging through an endless pit of name lists.

 

Character names are personal, and some authors like to use names that are unique rather than popular. The benefit of old-fashioned or other unusual names is that they don’t come with baggage. One of my favorite books as a child featured a nasty little boy named Timmy who hid the heroine’s birthday doll. I’ve never entirely trusted that name ever since. Likewise, I once had a boss named Peter who would set his bare feet on his beautiful antique desk when he was bored and clip his toenails. (With the door open!) Although Peter is a perfectly wonderful name, I can never use it unless I need a villain or a victim.

 

Some names are frozen in time. From my generation, every classroom had Carols, Pamelas, Deborahs, Lindas and Barbies. I rarely came across those names in my children’s classrooms, but they knew lots of Brittanys, Heathers, Jennifers, Matts, Joshuas and Michaels. When I chose Jessica for my daughter, I didn’t know anyone by that name. It turned out to be the third most popular name that year, and since our last name is one of the most common surnames in the country, we have learned to check and double-check the names on medical records whenever we visit the doctor.

 

 

When it comes to naming characters in paranormal romances, it seems pretty much anything goes, but those who write historical romance have a certain amount of pressure to use names that are appropriate to the country and period where their stories are set. The average reader might not be aware of the most popular girls names during Queen Victoria’s reign, but someone is bound to notice – and comment – if a character’s name is anachronistic.

 

For those who write contemporary romance, there are definitely trends in popular names. I’ve noticed a lot of heroes have names starting with J, and a lot of the masculine names are short, often only three or four letters: Max, Finn, Gage, Luke, Eric, Adam, Sam, Eli, Ben, Will, Alec and so on.

 

 

To read more about naming your characters, check out these posts:

 

https://www.heroesandheartbreakers.com/blogs/2011/05/whats-in-a-name-the-importance-of-names-in-romance-novels

http://www.bryndonovan.com/2014/12/27/100-sexy-names-for-contemporary-romance-heroes/

http://www.bryndonovan.com/2015/05/08/100-likeable-names-for-your-contemporary-heroine/

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/our-favorite-creative-character-names-in-romance/

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/15-amazingly-named-romance-novel-heroines/ 

 

Do you have any funny or embarrassing stories related to a name in real life or in fiction? My daughter had a “club” of friends when she was in fourth grade, and they each picked a sort of code name for themselves. My daughter chose “Gingeritis.” She must have liked the sound of it, but my husband and I couldn’t help giggling whenever a commercial came on the TV talking about “gingivitis.” My granddaughter, age five, got a new dog last year and invented a name for her new pet: Zolana. I think we have a new torch-bearer for the naming tradition.

One word of caution about changing the name of a character in your story. While it’s easy enough to change a name by using “find” and “replace,” this method is not foolproof. I will never forget the time I changed a character’s name from “Ana” to “Isabella” and later came across an interesting spelling of the word “management,” which had been corrected to “misabellagement.” Live and learn!

***

 

What’s your process for naming characters? If you’re a parent, did you use a similar method to come up with names for your kids (or, for that matter, your pets)?

***

Bio:

Becke joined the RU team in January 2011. She moderated the Garden Book Club and the Mystery Forum at BN.com until the forums were discontinued. Prior to that, she was a writer and instructor at B&N’s Online University and for two years she wrote a garden blog for B&N. During Becke’s twenty-plus years as a freelance garden writer, she wrote six garden books and one book about ‘N Sync, co-authored with her daughter. Becke also used to blog at Michelle Buonfiglio’s Romance Buy the Book blog. Writing as Becke Martin, she has three short stories in the HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS anthology published by the Ohio Valley Romance Writers Chapter. Becke has two adult children, two awesome granddaughters, one fabulous daughter-in-law and three cats. She has been married almost 47 years and lives in Chicago’s Hyde Park.

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17 Responses to “What’s in a Name? by Becke Martin Davis”

  1. I have fun naming characters and tend to use family names a lot. Oh, not recent family. Past family. They aren’t alive to complain!

    Posted by Stacy McKitrick | January 15, 2018, 7:26 am
    • One of the fun things about researching genealogy is finding the unusual names that run in a family. At one stage our family had a lot of Priscillas. There were a lot of Biblical names, like Isaiah. I knew I didn’t want to name my son after either of my grandfathers – Horace and Lyndon. It’s tricky, because I do like the idea of carrying on family names. But I think old fashioned girls names work better in present day than old fashioned boy names.

      Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 15, 2018, 7:53 am
      • My son’s name came from my grandmother’s maiden name: Stuart (and his middle name is my dad’s middle name). Although my daughter isn’t named by ANYONE in the family, and it ended up being popular when she was in school: Stephanie. She was on a T-ball baseball team when she was 6 or 7 and there were 4 Stephanies and 5 Erins on the team. Talk about confusing!!

        Posted by Stacy McKitrick | January 16, 2018, 3:48 pm
        • It’s funny how that works. I’ve had best friends named Pat and Kerry, and as I grew up, I collected quite a number of friends named Keri, Carrie, and so on. I only know one Erin, but my daughter had a good friend named Aaron. We had a cat named Stephanie – I still think that is a pretty name!

          Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 16, 2018, 9:45 pm
  2. More on your comment about people who might complain – I’m always intrigued by people who submit their names to authors for possible use in a book. This seems to happen a lot with mystery authors looking for names for their victims. 🙂

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 15, 2018, 7:55 am
  3. I’d love to hear about memorable names you’ve come across in books. Maybe not names from real life, though – my daughter came across a hilarious wedding announcement, but we never mention the details because we wouldn’t want to hurt the feelings of that real life couple.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 15, 2018, 8:11 am
  4. GREAT post, Becke!

    OMG I have so many stories. I hate having to change a main character name (had to change Finn to Gage in Sunroper because I already had a Quinn, and it killed me!).

    I did the find-and-replace thing with forgetting to select “whole words only.” Changed Rick to Tim and found ttimle (formerly trickle). LOL

    In real life, my niece is named Isis, after the goddess. She was born well before ISIS was a thing. She held up for a while, but recently changed her name to Dally. Poor kid!

    Posted by Natalie J. Damschroder | January 15, 2018, 11:06 am
    • I love your “find-and-replace” story. I’m soooo glad I’m not the only one to have had problems with that!

      I feel so bad for your niece. Isis is a lovely name, but of course it’s ruined now. I’ve heard that women named Katrina have changed their names in the aftermath of that devastation, too.

      Years ago, my husband worked for a very successful small company called AIDS. (Accounting Information Development Services.) They’d been in business just a few years when AIDS got a whole new meaning. It was quite expensive changing the company name, logo, and replacing all the pens, stationery, notepads, etc. with the new name, but they didn’t feel they had any choice.

      Did your niece at least have fun changing her name? My granddaughter (age 5) renames herself on a daily basis. She’ll announce that she’s not Adaline today and her sister is not Diana. “I’m Cora, and this is my little sister Julie.” If I forget and call her Adaline, I’ll get a dark look and a reminder of her new name. 😉

      Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 15, 2018, 11:53 am
  5. Natalie – You raise a good point about the Quinn-Finn issue. My brain does a short of mental shortcut thing when I’m reading, and I go a little nuts when there are several characters whose name starts with the same letter. I try to avoid that in my own writing, but it’s surprisingly had to avoid that type of alliteration.

    It’s also tricky when the names sound alike, even if they don’t look alike.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 15, 2018, 1:50 pm
    • The hardest part for me is accidentally naming two characters who are never in the same scene something too similar. And then in the next book, when they ARE in the same scene, you’re stuck!

      Authors who write short romances with tight storylines and small casts have it soooo much easier than longer writers with big casts! LOL

      Posted by Natalie J. Damschroder | January 15, 2018, 2:49 pm
  6. Oh, I, too have lots of stories. Having had six kids, I spent a long time naming each, years before it was easy to find out the sex before birth. I also didn’t want common names but each name we chose turned out to be popular, after the child was born.
    Even our twins, Nathan and Natalie. I was shocked to find 2 more Nathans and another Natalie in a small church’s preschool class!
    I also work hard to name characters and had trouble with one until I looked up her name. It had a negative meaning so I had to give her a nickname. That helped! She became a more rounded “person.”

    Posted by Sherrill Lee | January 15, 2018, 4:39 pm
    • I hadn’t thought about nicknames. That gives you a lot of leeway, since you can choose one that helps shape the character any way you like.

      Twins! I have several friends with twins. They are sooo much work, but I think it would be exciting, too. My grandmother was a twin, but a fraternal one. I don’t think those are hereditary, but I’m not sure.

      When we named our son Jonathan we liked the option of calling him “Nathan” even though that never happened. We chose Jessica for our daughter in part because my husband and I liked the shorter versions, too. But my daughter HATES it when people shorten her name. People have very strong ideas about names, I’ve found!

      Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 15, 2018, 5:08 pm
  7. I’ve been a name freak since I learned how to read. I even used to look up names in the phone book. Naming characters is hard though I rarely use a character’s middle name, I always assign one because for some reason, it helps me develop their story.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 15, 2018, 9:13 pm

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