What’s in a name? If it’s your own — the moniker your parents bestowed before they ever got to know you – it’s either a blessing or a curse. Or you’ve changed it, legally or at least by reputation, to something more suitable. If it’s the title of a project, then a name becomes a brand, a calling card, and an introduction. In the case of band names, they often deserve more thought than they ultimately get — I’m looking at you, Hoobastank and Diarrhea Planet.
But what I’m thinking about, in this case, are the names of characters in works of fiction. In tenth grade, inspired by my parents’ hippy friends, I named a character in a short story Omega. My English teacher wrote, in red pen, “Do you even know what this word means?” When my first novel was published, one reviewer — who was overall kind and enthusiastic — wrote, “I do find myself wishing that Marshall came up with some non-soap-opera names for her fictional musicians.” So names matter. They set the tone for the character and they also serve as a litmus test for the believability and authenticity of a story.
As writers (unlike parents) we know the people we’re tasked with naming, so we need to try our best to do right by them. I say this as someone who sometimes gets it wrong. But I’m not alone. I’m currently reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and while I like it, I find the name of the protagonist, Amory Blaine, rather pretentious. Plus, it makes me think of Andrew McCarthy’s Blane from Pretty In Pink, of whom Jon Cryer’s Duckie said, “That’s a major appliance, that’s not a name!” And what about Dick Diver from Tender is the Night, also by Fitzgerald? Not to pick on F. Scott — even lovely Nick Hornby is prone to soap-opera names for fictional musicians, e.g. Tucker Crowe in Juliet Naked.
So how can we find names that sound as if they belong to actual, believable people and not rockers, cartoons or porn stars? I’ve been collecting resources and here are a few that I find to be useful:
1. Cemeteries. Every cemetery is full of names of those who lived full lives under those identities. The names are tested. They also give some historical ballast, especially in historical fiction, since names rise and fall in popularity. A Gertrude is of-an-era — or else was named for an important aunt or grandmother and so carried with her a sense of history. Characters who are old-fashioned or tied to family lore might have old-fashioned names.
2. Vintage yearbooks. I’ll start with a word of caution here. My mother’s college yearbook from the late 1960s had an Andy Angel and a Jack Frost, and she claims to have dated both of them. If you name a character Andy Angel, your book better be set at a sock-hop or a doo-wop concert. But, like cemeteries, there’s a kind of historic accuracy. I went to high school (in the 1980s) with Debbies, Deanas and approximately five zillion Jennifers. The names from the class of 1954 image I’ve posted here include Melvin Jensen, Rex Johnson and Concha Gomez. Their very ’50s-ness is exotic, but also plausible. What novel isn’t begging for a Rex Johnson?
3. University faculty directories. This is a new find for me. But seriously, if you need names with some gravity and solemnity, here are some offerings from the University of Cambridge department of history: Liesbeth Corens, Alison Bashford, Joseph Canning, Lukas Engelmann, Lawrence Eliot Klein, Helen Pfeifer, James Poskett (whose photo is absurdly handsome, by the way) and the oh-so-deserving of a fictional alter-ego, Poppy Cullen.
4. The locker room. The gym I belong to rents lockers by the month, and each rental locker has a a sticker identifying its tenant and renewal date. As in all the other cases, these are actual names of actual people. Lived-in names. The caution here is not to use an exact name for a story that will be widely published within the community of those locker-renters. It could be awkward or make people feel uncomfortable — especially if the character bearing their name is not altogether admirable. But, just as truth is often weirder than fiction, real names are often more stories than mad-up ones. And I call dibs on today’s locker-room find: Julia Horn.
Obituary columns serve well as reminders of old-timey names too.
And, Five Million Jennifers IS a band name, right?
Great tip, Scott! And if Five Million Jennifers is not a band name, it certainly should be. An ’80s cover band, perhaps?
Oh, I love Scott’s suggestion above!
I find the Social Security Popular Baby Names directory is a fun tool. You can search by birth year to see what was common during a specific time period – perfect for stories that take place in the past: https://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/