Wednesday, March 2, 2011

That's My Name, Don't Wear It Out

I've been thinking about a book I have coming out soon, The Reluctant Nude. At the final stage of proofing, my [brilliant and attractive] editor from Samhain sent me a PDF of the "finished" e-book. Just like the real deal you'd upload to your e-reader, it featured an excerpt from another romance to entice you at the end. Oddly enough, though, the hero in the excerpt had the same name as my wackadoo French hero from The Reluctant Nude—Max. I mean, how often do we really meet Maxes in our lives, ones who weren't born in the last five to ten years? Granted mine is a Maxence, but still. This happens a lot in romance.

Contemporary romance character names are a pet peeve of mine. Don't worry, this isn't another rant-post about soap opera monickers like Rock and Stone and Lucian. What I want is for character names merely to be period realistic—period in this case meaning the seventies, when most heroes in current books would have been born. I have a sneaking suspicion that authors are choosing names from current baby name books. Have you really ever met a man in his thirties named Cayden or Brayden or Jaden or Jace? I promise I'm not picking on any author specifically—I've seen all of those multiple times. The worst is Aiden (Aidan, Aden). I'm sure someone will contradict me, but aside from Aidan Quinn, are there really all that many American men born before 1998 with that name? I blame Sex and the City.

Aside: while I was in art school in the late nineties and early oughts, I worked at a kids' furniture store, where I spent my days inhaling enamel paint fumes and decorating toy boxes and such with designs. We personalized just about everything with the kids' names, and since I worked there for four years, I got a first-hand education in the then-current baby naming trends and patterns. Hands-down, Aiden was the most overused boys' name. No wonder I get so irked by it now. Also popular: Jackson, Madeline, Cole, Sophie, and yes, Max. And all the Caydens and Braydens and Jadens. Properly posh names. Names people simply weren't given in the decades our heroes were born. Names aren't static—they're as fickle as fashion. Hugh is now a popular boys' name in the States, thanks largely to Hugh Jackman, I suspect. You may know a few babies named Hugh, but really, did you go to an American high school with any? (Actually I did, but he was the III.)

When I'm naming a character (bear in mind I write contemporary) the first thing I do is head to this website, which lists the 1,000 most popular American baby names by decade. Please note, Aiden's not even in the top thousand in the 1970s. Ditto Cayden, Jayden, and Jace. "Braden" comes 917th, right between "Dereck" and "Lon". There are other sites out there that even offer a year-specific list. Some readers are history buffs and can't stand when the place settings or the petticoats are wrong. Well that's me with names. I know, I know—it's fiction, authors can use whatever name they want, it's their right. Well it's my right to roll my eyes.

When creating my own characters, I usually limit myself to the top 200 from that aforementioned site and try to pick the one that resonates best. It means my heroes typically end up with names like Michael and Russ and Brian, instead of Colter or Avery or Chase, but I sort of like that. All of this goes for heroines as well. No heroines born in the late seventies christened Madison or Kaylee, please. I mean, you wouldn't likely name her Gertrude, since it's period inappropriate, right? That instinct should go for the too-trendy as well as the too-old-timey. I think only one of my female leads has an odd name, and that's Fallon from The Reluctant Nude. I stole her name from a twenty-something character on The Archers BBC radio soap opera, because dammit, it just fit her.

I guess what I'd like to say in closing is this: authors, your characters are already special. Don't name them as you would your baby, from fear of saddling them with a boring, forgettable name, and making them boring, forgettable characters. You don't dress them in fluorescent clothes to make them stand out, do you? Let them stand out in their words and actions. Think about who their mother was, and what she would name them, in what year. I honestly won't read another romance starring a hero named Aiden…unless perhaps it's historical (I'm a history know-nothing, so I'm not fussy about naming accuracy) or possibly set in the UK. For those exceptions, I might quit my huffing and come along for the ride. Otherwise, trust me. Save the posh baby names for your hero and heroine's firstborn.


  1. It does throw me out of the story a bit when there's a character with a name that doesn't fit. Not just the time period, but the character's own story. Sure write a Hugh born in the 70s. But he'd better be a III. If you're going to have a Sunshine, give her hippie parents who never grew up. If you're going to be radically different, give me a reason to go along.

  2. Totally agree. I also put the name to the "calling it out in the heat of passion" test. I would feel silly screaming "Do me Colter!"
    So yeah...when I was in school we had more David's and Michaels than you can shake a stick a, so perhaps a little more inventiveness is called for, but I love the idea of keeping it in the realm of possibility!
    Great post!

  3. Hey ladies! And thanks, Christine, for the good snort over "Do me, Colter!" Tempted to change the post's title to that now…

  4. Bless you.

    True story time, 11 yrs ago at ped office. 5 boy children in waiting room (mine was oldest at age 2) 3 of them were named Jacob. I lol'd & hell no, mine was not one of them.

    Quickly my rules for naming real children today:

    1. Check most recent SSI baby name list.
    2. Throw out names 1-50.
    3. Choose from names 51-200. Be careful of names 51-75 if they are moving up the chart fast.
    4. And I swear if you use a "special" spelling I will pronounce your child's name the way you spelled it and mock you to your face.

    *I would also like to state none of these rules apply to J.R. Ward. Her cracktastic names are in a league of their very own.

  5. Choosing names for Santa's sons and the elves is great. I use a list of German names, and I also just make them up. My favorite one so far is Ulrich Munsterman (he's an elf).

    I once heard that publishers won't let you use the name "Jack" or "Jake"...too over-used. But not sure if this is really true.

  6. I've heard of verboten name lists too, Pen—I've seen Jason blacklisted for overuse, as well as Hawk(e), Gray, Colter, Cash, Brand, Raven, Devin, Lucian, and a bunch I've forgotten…those were probably used more in historicals / westerns / paranormals, though.