Wednesday, July 4, 2012

What if Romeo had been called Baxter?

"Oh, Baxter." "Oh, Amelia Bedelia"
Despite Romeo’s claims to the contrary—all that business about roses—names are important. Juliette would have loved him the same, but for readers and viewers, “Baxter, oh, Baxter, where art thou, Baxter?” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.
As a child, the Good Girls in my head had names like Aurora and Raina and Annie while the boys were Alistair and Alexander and John. Names I thought had integrity and strength. Bad Boys were Butch, Bill or Joe. Don’t ask me why, I have no idea. Others would have considered these fine, upstanding names. Whatever your personal preferences, names definitely leave a perception. When you name a character for strength, what names do you choose? Is it the same method for naming the evil or insincere personalities who populate your manuscripts?

Recently it was suggested that the names of two of my protagonists were outdated and readers might relate better if they underwent a name change. Hmm. I wonder. Is why I had trouble connecting with them myself? I usually choose names with care, but these two were such minor characters in the long ago, original version that I hadn’t bothered. I named her after someone I knew whose eyes I’d given her. I didn’t know she was a diva who would claw her way to center stage.

When choosing a name here are some points to ponder:
  • Names can reflect nationality and culture. Would you have a Hindi character named Rajesh MacGyver? Possibly, but it better not be by accident. 
  •  A strong name for readers from a different culture may not work for readers in mainstream USA.  I have known American men named Evelyn, Kaye, and Gayle. Uncommon in the US, but respectable British male names. Is your character carrying on the family name? Has a boy been named for Evelyn Waugh, his mother’s favorite British author? How will that affect him? 
  • If a famous or infamous person shares that name, how will readers respond? What’s the first thing that comes to your mind at the name Lex Luther? Martin Luther? Luther Vandross? 
  • When was the name popular? There are many sites to help you with this or you can check  for popular names in the birth year of your character. I was always comfortable with my name even though there were three girls named Mary in my parochial school class. Today, Shanika, Mackenzie, or Flaherty are common. If you’re writing a book about a contemporary character should she be a Mary or a Flaherty? Popularity and age aren't the only considerations. 
  • Be aware of nuances of meaning. Does your character personify his name? Does he grow into it as the story progresses? Is the name at complete odds with his actions? Does he like his name? 
  • How does the name sound aloud? Is it rhythmical? Is it too similar to another character’s name? A reader may have difficulty differentiating between a Jack and a Jock in the same story, unless you plan for it. What kind of emotion does the name elicit? Think Amelia Bedelia.
  • Watch for how the initials or nicknames would look. Did you ever consider the potential travel problems for Karen Kay Kline and her boyfriend Albert Qaeda?  

A well chosen name can help a reader connect to a character.  The character’s personality, strengths, flaws, even her relationship with her family should influence the decision. If the name doesn’t seem to fit or doesn’t resonate with beta readers, choose another. Now, back to 100,000 Baby Names by Bruce Lansky.

Mary Allen is taking a break from renaming full grown characters to celebrate July 4th by attending the big parade with her family and by reading her poetry at the Arts in the Park concert. Have a safe celebration, especially those in drought stricken and fire damaged areas. Remember, in Christ we are truly free.


  1. So, TRUE! I think of names like James T. Kirk, or Clark Kent, and even Luke Skywalker that all generate a feeling matching their names. What would have happened had it been Bob Kirk, Bob Kent, or Roy Skywalker?

  2. LUV your fun, silent example of "Juliette". . . :-)

  3. Exactly. Would Bob Kirk have worn a pocket protector? Would Bob Kent have carried a rifle in his truck rack? Would Roy Skywalker have worn a cowboy hat? It does make you wonder. Or would we have suddenly elevated those names to magical status similar to the current popularity of Geeks and Nerds.

    Thanks Millie.

  4. Very interesting article. Mind if I add a few thoughts? I know, I will irregardless.

    First, another thing to think about is pronunciation. In Stephen King's "On Writing", he mentioned he changed one character's last names from three sylabyles to one with two because that name appeared frequently and it was easier to write and to say when he did the audio book.

    Related -- In my WIP, I have a Croatian girl named Marija. How do you pronounce that? Ma-rye-jah? Mer-ry-jaw? Actually, in Croatian the 'j' makes a 'y' sound, so in reality it sounds like Maria. The first two times Marija shows up, I mention a mispronunciation and have one of the characters give the correct pronunciation so they'll quickly know how to pronounce the foreign name, and hopefully after the second time they'll remember.

    Second, I liked your Rajesh MacGyver. (Does he show up in one of your books?) I met a Korean girl named Kelly O'Hara. No kidding. Of course, she was adopted.

    Related, sometimes an unexpected name catches your imagination. Like a mobster named Verbal. Or in a book I read recently, there was a Billy Clyde who was African American. The funny thing -- I started critiquing the sequel before reading the original story, and the author had forgotten to mention his race in the sequel, so I had one image while critiquing and had to change it after reading the first story.

    Okay, enough for now.


  5. Noteworthy comments, Jeff. I've got On Writing on my to read list. I liked the idea of having a short rather than long name for a main character. In one novel, a character was known by first and middle name. With a hyphen I cut about a gazillion words from the ms. No Rajesh Macgyver came to being for the purpose of this blog, but then, will he let sleeping blogs lie? Who knows, he may commandeer an entire book for himself.