“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Names. They’re important. They’re not important. It depends.
For me, names are important. I spent a long time choosing my children’s. I had various reasons for this and the names I chose (and I did choose them all; my Husband had power of veto, but we came to the agreement I carried the babies, so I named them. And no, don’t feel sorry for him – he suggested this!).
Ultimately, I wanted a name for each of the children with a meaning I liked/could relate to and a name that I felt would not be embarrassing to them as they aged. However, my friends and colleagues confess to plucking names out of thin air for their kids that “felt right”, or even being corralled into choosing names they didn’t even like at the behest of a partner. (Usually, their dislike of the name fades apparently as the child ages, since they “become” that name, they tell me). So basically, it’s up to the individuals involved, like probably 90% of parenting issues.
What most of us CAN agree on – and I would certainly hope writers would agree on this – is that being words, names have certain connotations. Words are usually not arbitrary, so there may expectations and agreements to the meanings of some words (including names) – even if those “expectations and agreements” are something we ultimately disagree with.
This is when it gets very tricky, because when a troll-for-hire like Katie Hopkins says classist shit like, “I don’t let *my* precious darlings play with children called Tyler or Chardonnay” (or words to that effect; FYI Daily Fail Link Warning), we may think she’s a vile, controversy baiting Z-Lister (and for God’s sake, why on earth would it “matter” *who* your kids play with as long as they’re all happy and getting along??). However, Hopkins DOES put a finger on something we ALL do, whether we admit to it or not and that’s judge others, rightly OR wrongly, by so-called “first impressions”.
And guess what: someone’s name is part of those first impressions. But we live in a democracy, so we can call our children whatever we damn well please, for whatever reasons we like (or not, as the case may be!). And as writers, we have that same privilege when it comes to our characters, when writing our screenplays and novels.
So why then, do I – and readers like me – see the same damn character names OVER AND OVER again???
The Case Against The “Usual”
In spec screenplays, I’m literally ODing on Johns and Sarahs, especially for protagonists. It’s not difficult to see why. Some of the most iconic movies heroes have been called John, from McClane to Connor, plus Sarah is probably for Sarah Connor (occasionally I’ll get an Ellen as a Ripley nod, instead). Sometimes screenwriters will name heroes – especially in action movies – by their surnames and I see the same ones in this scenario too; the three I get most often are Dowd, Harper and Preston.
In the novels I read for Bang2writers, I get a little more variety, though writers stick almost exclusively to modern preferences that appear often in the top tens for any given year: Chloe, Scarlett, Sophie; Joshua; Charlie; Oliver. Sometimes (and especially in novels meant for an older female audience) the characters’ names will be “classic” and dateless, such as Claire, Jane, Anna or Anne; David, Tom, Jack or Robert.
Yet characters ARE our babies. In our writing life, we will “give birth” to potentially hundreds, even thousands of them. Why we would leave our characters’ names to chance perceptions by a reader who is not connected to them?
1) Popular Names
One way of making your writing feel current is by using names that “relate” to that time you call “present day”, which may be either when you physically write the screenplay or novel, or the period you set it in (especially the past). As mentioned, this is probably the method most favoured by writers, especially novelists, so you need to beware of simply plucking some names off a top ten list or website, as there is a strong chance you may opt for the “same-old, same-old”. I’d wager it’s a good idea to look at top 100s and opt for something further down the list, especially from 50 onwards.
Also worth thinking about: the fact that trends and celebrities may influence people. In real life, I know children called Miley, Britney and Keanu, as well as two cats called Beyoncé. On this basis then, Coronation Street rather famously has a character called Chesney, after Chesney Hawkes, who was at Number One back in 1991 when that character would have been born.
2) Striking Names
There are lots of forgotten and rarely used names that could mark your screenplay or novel out. The key to remember here is why you’re choosing it. Something completely outlandish usually needs a reason – that character is “special”, in some way perhaps? – and it’s rare a story can “stand” two or more names completely out of the left field. There are exceptions, of course: Mills and Boon novels are famous for having outlandish names (I remember reading one back in the mists of time which featured twin brothers called Obsidian and Kohl!).
Two more exceptions are Science Fiction and Fantasy, in which screenwriters and authors often literally make names up to give a feel for a “different” time and/or place. The key in creating new names for your new race (or whatever) is remembering you don’t want to make them too long or unpronounceable (if that’s even a word, itself). A good tip a Fantasy author gave me once was, “Take a human name, then alter one letter for a short name; two for a longer one”!
3) Names with a theme
When I was a new screenwriter back in the day, one thing I really liked to do – and something that got noticed over and over by readers and agents in particular, in a GOOD way – was my penchant for using a theme to name my characters, to complement the story or genre I was writing in.
For one screenplay, it was “nature”, so my characters were called things like , Rowan (a tree); Brae (another word for “Heath”); Aramanta (Latin for “Little Flower”); and Oran (an old Irish word meaning “green”). For another, it was 80s rock gods/goddesses, so my characters were called Stevie (Nicks); Gene (Simmons); Freddie (Mercury) and Chrissie (Hynde).
Be creative … We ARE writers, people!
4) Literary/ Movie Names
This is another one that needs to be approached with caution, as so many writers pick the SAME novels and movies to allude to! More very popular names that appear a lot are probably Alice (as in WONDERLAND); Holden (CATCHER IN THE RYE); and Ash (ALIEN), as well as the aforementioned Ellens, not to mention the Johns and Sarahs inspired by the TERMINATOR franchise.
If you’re really keen on alluding to a novel or movie in your characters’ names, that’s obviously fine; just make sure you twist our expectations with it. It’s better that people DON’T get the allusion, than groan and say, “Not THIS again!”
5) Meaningful Names
If you, the writer know the meaning of names, then you can build this into your character and/or storyworld, for whatever reasons you choose. Characters are not real people; you essentially ARE GOD. The choices you make at this level are about foundations, not only for your story, but its theme and/or the message you are trying to get across. On this basis, your motivations for choosing a name of ANY meaning may be anything you choose then too, including by not limited to: literary allusion (as above); “for colour” (as in points 2 or 3); making your story relevant and/or contemporary (point 1); or dramatic irony (below).
6) Ironic Names
I’d venture there’s a very good reason the possessed child in THE EXORCIST is called Regan: this is the name of one of King Lear’s two dastardly, usurping daughters in Shakespeare’s famous play. For those unfamiliar, Regan plots with Goneril to oust her father, isolating sister Cordelia in the process and causing a war. So Regan’s first name in THE EXORCIST is not only a literary allusion, it is ironic too, for unlike her namesake, little Regan does NOT choose to throw her kingdom into disarray.
Ironic names (that are not literary allusions too) can relate to character role function within the actual story they appear in, as well: for instance, the word “Craven” means “contemptibly lacking in courage”, so it is no accident movies like UNDERWORLD (and quite a few specs I see) use this for characters who are antagonistic forces against the protagonist.
Ironic names can also relate to WHO the character is on an intrapersonal level, too. I’d wager again it was no accident the protagonist of GRAVITY’s surname is “Stone”, when we consider her heart is essentially made of this … until she is forced to face her own mortality and reasons for living.
So, can you give your work an added layer of dramatic irony, with a judicious choice of name? Bet you can.
7) Non “Usual” Names
If we are to accept names are words, plus words are not arbitrary and therefore have connotations, then it’s soon very obvious there are certain names that are chosen by certain groups of people, based on a number of factors which may or may not include (but is not limited to) people’s socio-economic and/or ethnic background.
This is probably the MOST contested element of character naming and the one that Keyboard Warriors appear to make the most negative assumptions about writers’ motivations on. Despite KWs saying they WANT writers to do something different, when those writers do attempt something different (or even just TALK about it!), their attempts are condemned as “problematic” as mine were in this Storify by a certain KW on Twitter recently.
This element of naming connotations is without question a minefield. It is also one that is exploited by the Hopkins, Littlejohns and Dawkins as they write off sections of society in one fell swoop, based on nothing more than where these people live or what their religion is. The Left rightly got in a strop over Katie Hopkins’ name-bashing because she WAS being negative about the connotations of certain names. Hopkins’ shitty logic is not hard to follow, either: she apparently doesn’t like names like Tyler and Chardonnay because she feels uneducated parents choose them, ergo their children will have “low aspirations”, thus she does not want HER children playing with such children. In short, UGH.
Let’s be clear. Poverty and/or a lack of education are not infectious, even if Hopkins’ small mind seems to think they are. And for the record, I have lived in economically deprived areas for most of my life. I know full that just because you’re poor does NOT mean you’re automatically stupid or lack imagination, aspiration, ambition or education.
Being poor is about one thing and one thing only: not having any money. On this basis I reject class labels and prefer to think of a person as being “privileged” if having money and “underprivileged” if s/he does not, especially as it allows for more social mobility, especially via education.
And this is the main point I’m making here: all any of us have are the people around us when it comes to this issue, since naming our kids is so personal, as I mention at the beginning of this post. Here are some observations (note: not judgements) I have made then moving around the SW of the UK, through various rural and urban areas, both affluent and not, ethnically diverse & not:
- Names can seem to be dependant on geography. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I observed there seemed to be more repetitions of the same names in bigger, more affluent areas, accounting maybe for the larger number of people … Until I factored in that in some smaller, rural and/or less monied areas, there appears to be a higher variety of names, with many more highly striking names AND less repetition of those repeated names appearing in the bigger/affluent areas.
- “Classic” names are very much in fashion at the moment (especially Biblical and/or Victorian), though when I first became a mother in the late 90s, the opposite was true: kids were far more likely to be called striking names (if they weren’t called Jack or Chloe!). Despite this, there are certain classic names that just haven’t come back on a general level, like Margaret, Lesley, Hilary, Maureen, Deirdre, Ernest, Godfrey and Percival.
- Though David was popular for decades – and indeed, I know about thirty, between the ages of about 35 and 75! – this name seems to be taking a bit of a backseat at the moment: they still occur, just not with the same regularity they once did. (My old EFL students were always of the opinion you could yell “Dave!” down an English street and “Seventy per cent of British men there will turn around“!)
- Everyone thinks they have the right to comment and/or ask about your kid’s name. Everyone. And I include myself on this.
- Whilst girls OR boys may be called after trees (like Rowan) or shrubs or herbs (like Sorrell), it is unlikely you will find boys named after flowers.
- It’s unlikely you will find girls whose names are initials (AJ, JD etc) and it appears just as unlikely boys have hyphenated names or two names squished together like girls sometimes do, ie. Sarah-Louise, MaryJane. (In addition, the most common name attached to girls’ these days appears to be “May” or “Mae” ie. Lily-May, Tilly-Mae; when I was a child, it was Louise).
- It’s unlikely you find boys named after countries like India and China, though you may find a boy child of colour called Africa, but nearly always with a “k” instead of a “c”.
- It’s unlikely you will find girls named after primary colours like Red or Blue.
- It’s unlikely you will find boys named after concepts, like Destiny.
- It’s unlikely you will find girls with adjective names like Noble and Able.
- It’s unlikely you will find many privileged children “obviously” named after celebrities (first names, or as transferred use of surname, ie. Rooney).
- It’s unlikely you will find many underprivileged children called Rupert or Beatrice. It’s unlikely you will find a white child called Mohammed and it’s unlikely you’ll find a child of any ethnicity called Jesus (who is not a Spanish speaker).
- It’s unlikely you will find a underprivileged child with transferred use of surname as a first name that is not Ashley, Bailey or Harrison.
- Though different spelling endings (ie. “y” vs. “ie”) appear to give little indication of background or even gender with many names, it’s unlikely you will find a privileged child with a phonetic spelling name: ie. Alisha, Jorja, Neve.
Note I write “unlikely”. I am reminded of Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy here and of a white child I once knew called Roshani, which I assume is an altered version of the Hindi name Roshni. I currently live over the road from another white child called Shakira, though she probably owes her name to the singer (calling point number 1 to mind again), rather than its Urdu meaning, “thankful”. I also know a baby called Margaret (NOT Maggie! As her Mum insists); a two year old Percy; a seven year old Lesley and a fifteen year old Edward-Victor. Of course anything is possible.
Also note I do not write it is “unlikely” you will find children who are PoCs with so-called “white” names, which I think it itself is a misnomer somewhat ironically, as I don’t think there’s any such thing! Second and third generation immigrant families are extremely likely to adopt names popular in the country their parents and grandparents choose, both for themselves and their children. Tourists, too: for example, non native speakers may have “English Names”, which anyone who’s ever been an EFL Teacher will know is a practice very popular with Chinese people, though intriguingly not so much with Japanese people I’ve noticed (in my own EFL classes, at least).
But let’s get back to the notion of naming characters: *should* writers choose so-called “ethnic” or “typical” names like Rupinder, Tupele, Asif, Mo/Muhammed, etc? After all, if screenwriters are NOT casting agents, COULD it be a “handy” way of indicating the characters in our mind’s eye are NOT all automatically white?
Hmmm. Maybe? … Or Maybe not:
FOR: If we don’t, is the story “white washed”?
AGAINST: If we do, are we stating that all other characters are “white by default”?
FOR: We can give an impression of who the characters are, without having to state their ethnicity explicitly (especially since some industry people AND PoCs are against this, as “anyone” SHOULD be able to play the part?)
AGAINST: But there are loads of PoCs who have names (first AND last) that don’t give any indication of their ethnicity?
FOR: It’s patronising to assume everybody has a “usual” name. What about heritage?
AGAINST: That’s a patronising assumption as well. Since when is “heritage” the only consideration for parents choosing a name in real life, so why would it be for this character’s parents?
FOR: They’re just names, FFS.
And so we go around in circles … I would venture there is not a satisfying “right” answer and all I can offer is the notion that ALL writers – white or PoC – can only go with their conscience.
So like real-life parents, writers have a PLETHORA of names at their fingertips to choose from, so I don’t understand why we wouldn’t. Sometimes writers tell me names “just come to them”, but I’m suspicious of this method since we cannot always be sure we haven’t been influenced by something on our peripheral vision. In other words, I think it’s better not to leave it to chance!
So give your characters’ names the SAME consideration you would in every other part of your writing and you can potentially help give your story another layer of meaning. What’s not to like?
I’ve taken ages to choose names for my characters by looking up meanings on different websites, and I’ve still got one first name and two surnames to go.
I didn’t know Chesney was named after Chesney Hawkes!