Monday, June 25, 2012

That By Which We Call A Rose (Serves to Further Demonstrate What a Nerd I Am)

Allow me to put forth a theory/opinion: it is harder to name characters than it is actual babies.

Allow to me clarify: (beginning, of course, with some apparently random and unrelated tangent-like back story) in college I took a play writing class.  My professor was pretty awesome, and among other things she gave us a character bio outline handout full of facts/traits/questions/whatever that one should figure out/make up/discover/whatever for each important character early on.  Among the things on the list is the character's age and birthday including the year.  Something that seems really rather obvious, but that I'd never done so specifically before. (actually random unrelated tangent: I sometimes make up characters I'm 97% sure I will never use anywhere just because I think it's fun to fill out these character bios.)

Anyway.  Even before that class I always tried to make my names fit the character's age.  For example - a great-grandmother named Britney Ladashla?  Yeah.  Right.  But Dora Elizabeth?  Well, that was one of my actual great-grandmother's name.  And it just sounds right, doesn't it?  It's a grandma name - it just is.  So I went by the old lady-or-newborn sounding test.  And I suppose it more or less worked.  But you can never underestimate the ability of someone as nerdy as myself to take something like that to the next level. 

So then the internet happened.  Or rather, the no-longer-living-at-home-with-the-archaicly-dinosaur-iffic-tortoise-dial-up-internet-connection-until-two-thousand-freaking-six thing happened.  And the discovery-of-gajillions-of-baby-name-websites thing happened.  And the some-of-them-have-baby-name-popularity-rankings-for-the-last-over-a-hundred-years thing happened.  So naturally the Lacey-entertains-herself-by-looking-up-random-names-and-their-ranking-charts thing happened.  And, obviously, the using-those-sites-and-charts-to-name-characters thing wasn't very far behind . . . and now my method is to figure out the character's birthday, look up the popular names for that year, and pick something from the bottom two thirds or so of the top 100.  It works pretty perfectly, I find a name that feels and sounds spot on but still isn't a girl named Emma who was born in 2001 - if you know what I mean.

Okay, so here's the part where I start coming back around to my point or whatever.  As I've been playing around on various name sites and such I've been noticing how very . . . I don't know, "locked" some names are.

Case in point: Jessica.  A name said to be created by Shakespeare himself for (I think) The Merchant Of Venice, now it is the most quintessential of all the quintessential 80s names.  Even though it stayed in the top 5 from 1977 to 1997 it practically reeks 1987, smack dead center.  Think about it: when was the last time you heard about someone naming their newborn Jessica?  I'm willing to bet it's been at least ten years.  And on the end of the spectrum, Jessica is soooooooooooooo not an old lady name.  Unless, I suppose, you're an old lady who spends every day solving the latest murder in Cabot Cove, Maine.  (ten points if you get the reference . . . and minus a trillion for any comments on the fact that I could name the town off the top of my head.)

But people within five-ish years either way of my age with the name Jessica?  They're all over the place.  In elementary school there were exactly two names that ever had duplicates in my class: Sarah and Jessica.  I don't know what it is, but somehow it seems like the name got stuck in a time capsule, especially compared to other 80s names.  Sarah had timelessness going for it in the first place; Jennifers have used reinventions like Jen and Jenna to stay current sounding; Elizabeth had surpassed timelessness into obviousness . . . and then there's a handful of names that blipped big and died and will always be at least somewhat associated with big hair and neon and Madonna's cone bra phase - Jessica . . . Tiffany . . . Ashley.  (I feel like I should do the whole full disclosure thing here: I personally love the name Jessica.  And I have a cousin named Jessica.  And a sister named Ashli.  I like to wonder what my extended family name map would look like if there were as many girl cousins as there are boys.)

And here's where the harder-to-name-a-character-than-an-actual-baby thing comes in.  A person's name isn't just a reflection of who they are . . . it's also a major statement about the personality of the person/people who named them (by which I mean the character's mother . . . not me.  confused yet?).  A fictional person's name choice is likely to define that person very differently than a real life counterpart.  I have a daughter and name her Jessica?  I picked a pretty name I like that's become uncommon so she won't have to share it with classmates.  My character's mother names her daughter (born in 2006) Jessica?  She's an 80s baby who doesn't actually remember much of the 80s and tries to compensate by making everything in her life as 80s-tastic as possible . . . she considered naming her daughter Leia Buttercup - or maybe Sloan Claire (ten points for each reference, lol . . . well, five points for the first two).  My mother and aunt name their daughters Ashli and Jessica?  They picked cute, girly names they liked that just happened to be liked by the vast majority of the baby-having population at the time.  My character's mother names her daughter (born in 1989) Jessica?  She's a hopeless trend-follower desperate for any sort of popularity . . . her name is probably Lisa or Karen or Patricia (all top ten names in the 60s . . . no comment on certain other top names in that list).

In this particular case it's not that big a deal, the story I'm formulating has both mother and daughter as main characters, so I'm doing a thorough background bio on the mom anyway.  Of course, her name requires a bit of a dip into her mother's psyche . . . and before you know it I'm wondering where Eve came up with "Seth."

And therein lies why characters are harder: I didn't have to name myself.

P. ost  S. cript
So this is totally shopped out the wazoo . . . but it's still pretty awesome.


  1. And then you have names that would be fine on their own, but when you have either multiple names for a character (or child), or multiple children/characters with a set of names, they're suddenly a lot worse.

    Take, for example, a stroller I relocated one day ... the names on the tag were "Ross and Monica" ... That just shouts "Mom's favorite TV show was Friends!" Or another family I met who had 3 little girls, Reagan, Madison, and Kennedy. By themselves, all slightly "2005-2009 trendy", but otherwise fine names. Put them together, and they've got a family of dead presidents.

    You've had several posts about names lately. I think it's part of a plot. You post all these blogs about names, saying they're for characters you're developing, but really, you're using these posts to gather our advice on names we like/don't like, and then in a few months you're going to announce the birth of {INSERT BABY NAME HERE} Garlock, and thank us for all our input.

    Luke? Are the two of you keeping a secret from the rest of us?

    1. Hahahahaha! No, I really am just a big name geek working on a novel. And beside that, I've had my first two daughters' names picked out since high school. Luke knows they're non-negotiable (and he likes them anyway) and I don't much care what the rest of you people think. :-)

      (however, it kills me to see them both climbing the charts)

      One of these days there will probably a big announcement post here . . . so you'll just have to do the math then.

      Also - the Ross and Monica story sounds familiar. Was it while we were both still in Backlands? I want to say I remember hearing it from you the day it happened or shortly thereafter.

    2. Ross/Monica may very well have been Backlands. It's been long enough ago that I don't really remember for sure.

  2. I love your name posts. I love character creating. And I completely followed your line of thought and how difficult it must be. Though I think sometimes authors don't put all that much thought into it. I know I probably should have put more thought into naming my real life children. Ian always asks me where his name came from. Ian was just a name we liked. It kept popping up. I hated it at first because of one of Sean's roommates (if you spent any time in the theater department you'd probably know who I mean)--but it stuck. LATER we decided to look it up and Ian and Sean are both forms of John....go figure huh? I didn't know that BEFORE I named him though. oops. Landon- same thing. Though his middle name has family significance. Charlie is a mix of both. We loved the name Charlie and he's named after my great grandpa and grandpa.

    Though I will give you this warning: if you plan on using a name (for character or child) from the family line--check out the person's reputation before you tell everyone the kid is named after them. We have a Noah on Sean's side of the family. I love the name. I thought it'd be cool to name the kid after a great great something or other grandfather....until I found out that he's pretty much known for being a player and scoundrel and an all together not very nice guy. So had we chosen to go that route I would have steered clear of saying he was named after the family member- we just liked the name. (Felt like Hitch- the Butcher of Cadiz and all).

    1. I might know who you're talking about . . . I knew an Ian my freshman year who was a theatre major.

      Thus far the family names I want to use are all from people I actually know/knew so it's all good. Useful advice for anyone though! :-)

  3. Got the old lady Jessica reference- I thought of it as soon as you said it.

    All of my kids have a middle name of a family member with the exception of Matt and Brandi and their names I have known since I was in high school.

    As for Jessica? I didn't pick her name, Donovan did and he got it from Man From Snowy River.

    1. I didn't know Donovan picked it out . . . cool. I'd bet a lot of people got Jessica from Snowy River. Didn't it come out right around then?

    2. A couple years before, but ya. It was one of our favorites

  4. "My character's mother names her daughter (born in 1989) Jessica? She's a hopeless trend-follower desperate for any sort of popularity . . . her name is probably Lisa or Karen or Patricia "

    I disagree. If the daughter's name is something popular, then the mother's name is probably something UNpopular and unusual. The mom names her daughter something that will be common so her classmates won't tease her for her name.

    That's the naming trend now, reversed: We have so many Jessicas and Jennifers having babies that now have wildly "imaginative" spellings and cross-race namings and downright weird things like "Apple". Jennifer is trying to be creative for her daughter's name like her parents never were for her.

    1. Good point, but I think it's a little . . . incomplete. The top names today aren't as proportionally popular as they used to be. 100 years ago when Mary was #1 that was the name of something like 10+% of girls and you could easily have half a dozen Marys in a single class/grade level. When Emma was #1 it was only given to 1-2% of girls and you'd be hard pressed to find more than one in an entire grade, perhaps even the whole school. The 80s, obviously, fall somewhere in between. I see it as the point in time when names began to diversify a little - where before Mary named her daughter Elizabeth, who named her daughter Mary who named her daughters Lisa and Karen . . . well, I see Lisa naming her daughter Jessica and Karen naming hers Alexandrina. The list of "acceptable" names started to grow and some people went exotic while some stayed more traditional-ish.

      But of course, that's just my conclusion based on knowing a lot more than normal people about naming trends and statistics combined with the voices . . . I mean characters . . . in my head. :-)