Thursday, April 29, 2010

What's in a name? Part 2

So, I’m going to start out this post with an analogy borrowed from Arthur C. Clarke. In his great essay on dialogue, Clarke illustrates the importance of character-consistent dialogue with the two following examples:

In the early 20th Century, several MLB players were accused of tampering with the World Series. “Shoeless Joe” Jackson was one of the players accused of intentionally throwing the Series. “Legend has it that as Jackson was leaving the courthouse during the trial, a young boy begged of him, "Say it ain't so, Joe," and that Joe did not respond.”

In Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, one character (I can’t remember who, having never read it) exclaims in the face of an accusation, “Refute these calumnies, Nicholas!”

Clarke points out that it would be as inappropriate for the young boy to say “Refute these calumnies, Nicholas” as the Dickens character to shout “Say it ain’t so, Nick!” It is of tantamount importance to maintain consistency in all aspects of characterization.

So, that brings me to my gentle ramble/rant on naming conventions. I was born in Texas, lived in Oregon and was raised for the most part in the Boston area. It was not until I started college in Utah that I really came into contact with peculiar naming dialects. After having grown up surrounded by saints’ names, African-American naming conventions and historical names, I was introduced to girls named Ryan, white girls named LaTisha and boys who were named everything from Ammon to Zoram. If you remember that friend who started this whole thing about naming in the last post, she is a Utahn who named her daughter Asya. (For more on the weirdness of Utah names, see this awesome site, There’s no doubt that there are lovely names that come out of Utah and Mormonism in general (with the exception of Renesmee. *shudder*), but they are unheard-of on the East Coast.

I personally hold the conviction that names for characters should be as consistent with their backgrounds and upbringings as their dialogue. I also believe that unless it’s terribly important for the reader to know the origin of the parents, there should not be a character name that is clearly foreign to their area of residence. Yes, I could write about the love triangle between LaVell, Ammon and LaWayne, set in Philadelphia, but it would be all-too-clear that the parents were born and raised in Utah and had been inhaling too much Jell-O powder over the years. It also reminds me of Miss Congeniality and Sandra Bullock’s horror at being stuffed into the identity of Gracie Lou Freebush. In “Twenty Pageants Later” by Carolyn Keene, Dane comments that in order to win Miss America, there are only two imperatives: You have to be Texan and therefore have a two-part name. She laments having been stuck with a horrible name like Dane McKane while her sister, who couldn’t care less about pageants, gets the great name of Scottie-Anne.

So, therefore, how do I go about naming my characters? Step 1 is to listen to them as I’m writing them. That’s how Lindsey Morgan from Philadelphia turned into Leticia Serrano from San Salvador, El Salvador. Lynn Barrett appeared in my head as a redhead named Lynn and I found Barrett through a surname search.

Step 2 is to look at the respective birthdates of the characters and common names in that year. Census reports are invaluable for this task. Yes, my friend has a friend whose daughter was named Asia on the East Coast in 2004, but in 1991, Michael was #1 most popular name and Anthony was #15. Giving Michael a geographically inconsistent name would mean that his parents are imports.

Step 3, consider religious or political affiliations that could have an impact. I must admit to being bad in this sense. I came upon the name Ella by researching possible names for a queen in another story. I wanted her name to be Helene and another variation on that was Ella. The problem was that I had to look up rules of christenings in Catholicism, since Ella is a lapsed Catholic, but her parents were more religious. Luckily, I found that it was perfectly normal for her to have a saint’s name for her middle name. So Ella Theresa Mack stayed where she was. Also, would die-hard Republicans in the ’80’s name a kid Ronald after Reagan? That sort of thing.

Step 4, if there’s ethnicity involved, look at the degree of separation from the motherland. For example, someone who just immigrated might have a Maria Dolores name and their kid might still have the name of Guadalupe after la Virgen. Skip a couple of generations and you might get a Jeff Martinez, as with a friend of mine. It was very common for immigrants with children who were born in the States to mix the two and name them Yonni or Yessica. I also have friends from Korea who were named things like Soo-Kyong Pak or friends who went by Grace Park. You get the idea.

Step 5, make sure that you have a good balance of ethnically realistic characters. This is like trying to write a story set in Boston and needing to take into consideration that the city is half-Italian and half-Irish, but has a large percentage of Armenians, the suburbs are heavy on Jewish families and there are other racial boundaries to consider. In looking for an apartment for Leticia, Josue and their daughters Carolina and Sarah, I found that Philadelphia has the second-highest concentration of Latinos in the Northeast, so it was appropriate to add in a set of characters from Central America.

Step 6, when all else fails, go with gut instinct. If you need a character named Lavinia, go for it. Just make sure that there’s a reason for it.


  1. Agreed on the name consistency thing! I don't go as far to look at census/popular names, I just use step 6 most of the time. ;) But, agreed. Very good points and tips.

  2. Actually, the whole looking at census thing came from having looked at an interview with Stephenie Meyer in which people asked about how she came up with names. :)