Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Another name rant!

I love a good name rant, so I eagerly clicked on a Twitter link to this Gigi's Closet post about real-life baby-naming WTFery. Of course it got my head spinning, so please permit me a fresh curmudgeoning on the topic of character monickers.

I've been reading the voicetastical Kristan Higgins' Too Good To Be True, and the name of its [rowwwrrrr] hero is Callahan O'Shea. For realz?! But although normally such a name would propel my arm to launch the book clear across the room, this time it didn't. This is solely because of the heroine's reaction to the name—she's as agog at its over-the-topness as I am, as the reader. It also works because the heroine has a troublesome habit of inventing boyfriends, and giving the hero a fake-boyfriendworthy name like Callahan O'Shea completely reinforces that theme.

Pulling off a wacky or cutesy or ├╝ber manful character name is all in the believability. Higgins did this again in All I Ever Wanted, when she named her heroine Calliope, of all gaggably adorable things. But Higgins is good—the wackadoo name and its reference make sense when you meet the heroine's parents.

As I've said before, the first place I turn when I need to figure out my characters' names (which I do very early on—the name for me often comes before the personality, even) is this site, where you can view the top 1,000 [American] baby names by decade. I head to the decade my character was born and pick from the top 200.

I know, I know…it sounds so boring, so willfully, joylessly realistic. It's my book! I could make up any name I like! But that's not my scene. My characters, and my heroes in particular, tend to skew a bit, well, nuts. They're weird enough on their own. A special name would be overkill. Plus I get the specialness fix by writing foreign heroes on occasion—Maxence, Rasul, Rory, Didier, Ian, Reece. All fairly common names in their respective cultures, but I still get to indulge my inner writerly impulse to extra-specialify my characters. I've also done the same with surnames-as-nicknames. Flynn, Pike, Mac, Daisey, Ty… Atypical names work best (in my noisy opinion, anyhow) when they're made believable in the face of their oddness.

In my evil conjoined erotica-writing twin's latest manuscript, the heroine ended up with a weird name, which was not my intention. She's a pretty quiet, conservative character (despite the fact that the story centers around her deciding to lose her virginity to a Parisian male prostitute) and I'd expected to name her something like, I don't know…Anne, maybe. A safe, simple name for a cautious, no-frills character. But she ended up getting named Caroly. The name fell right off my fingertips without me really thinking about it, because sometimes names just present themselves. And in the end it worked, because the next words that plopped onto the page told me why:

“Good evening. You’re Carolyn?”

I managed to say, “I am.” My name is in fact Caroly, a misspelling on my grandmother’s prospective baby name list that my mother found exceedingly fetching; no sympathy for her daughter, doomed to be addressed as Carol or Carolyn for the rest of her days. And because of how Caroline is pronounced in France—
Caroleen—nobody here ever gets my name right when I introduce myself. But that’s fair, considering how badly I mangle their entire language every time I open my mouth.

So I'm not immune to the weird-ass character name impulse, as harshly as I judge it. And from the Higgins examples above, I'll admit I'm not a true stone-cold bitch about it in others' work. But there's got to be an reason for a weird name. Fine, christen your thirty-year-old contemporary hero Greyson or Rayvyn or Chance McO'FitzFlannahan, but you better clue me in to what in the heck his parents were thinking. Or smoking.

To reiterate what I've said before—your characters are special enough on their own. Or in other words, tossing glitter on a perfectly delicious cupcake doesn't actually improve the thing.


  1. While I do enjoy unusual names, I've run across authors who use all unusual names in a story and then I find it distracting. What is the likelihood that everyone the heroine knows has a name you haven't heard before (sci fi, fantasy & paranormal being exceptions)? Also, I find that too many unusual names make it hard to keep track of the characters -- it's like reading a book in a foreign language.

  2. Yeah, "distracting" is exactly the heart of my issue with made-up or period-inappropriate names. Then again, I prefer stories rooted in realism, because I'm one of those boring clods who likes the extraordinary to be quiet and understated, not announced in a flash of colored smoke or over a loudspeaker. "HEY, THIS CHARACTER IS SPECIAL! HER NAME IS SPELLED WITH AN ACCENT MARK AND EXTRANEOUS VOWELS!"

  3. Oh I couldn't agree more. Few things take me out of a story more quickly than an off-the-wall name that isn't rooted, very quickly, in an understandable family context. I don't mind characters having boring names. I'll contentedly read about 30 romance heroines named Jennifer (and its variants) because I went to school with at least that many and it seems grounded in reality. I have no problem remembering which Jennifer I know in real life is which because THEY are each unique. I should be able to do the same with a character.

  4. Meg, you are really fun when you get a-ranting. Does anyone ever tell you that? Good.
    I'm with you on the name thing. But I do like to play with them. I wrote a Neville (goes by Nev) in my London romance, because I read a book once with a Neville and thought, "What a perfectly awful name," but in the end I was charmed and won over, and I wanted to do the same. I did offer the heroine reaction, though. I think those are important.

  5. LOL Thank you for pimping my post. :)I normally wouldn't have ranted about this but the fact this is my god child, I figured I have a say in the matter. Well that and her parents need a good flogging.

    Unusual characters names don;t bother me. I've seen some winners and losers but if the character themselves are interesting...then the name doesn't matter to me. But then, I'm pretty easy. :)

  6. I used to cringe at names in historical romances until I started researching my own family history. From 1910 back, on my father's side, female names were Prudia, Lonia, Honor, Comfort, Zipporah - pronounced Zippry. Needless to say, I've revised my opinion of names in historicals, lol.