When it comes to choosing names, fiction writers have it good. They can choose a name purely for effect. They don't have to please any extended family, or worry whether there's another little Charlotte or Miles in their neighborhood. Better yet, they get to name full-fledged adults with established personalities and histories, rather than not-yet-born infants.
It's no surprise, then, that fictional people the most perfectly named people around. Can parents learn anything from the way fiction writers approach names? I've been reading guides to naming fictional characters, and I've come away with these five key pieces of advice:
Character names help conjure up a setting, cultural positioning, and spirit. Real-world names can't help but do the same. No matter why you choose a name, you should understand the cultural message it sends to others.
2. Using different sounds and initials avoids confusion. Keeping characters' initials distinct was the most universal advice I found. Some guides considered it so obvious that they were apologetic about even mentioning it. Most took the advice beyond initials and recommended varying the number of syllables and stress patterns in a large cast of names to help readers keep them straight. Yet many parents deliberately choose matching sibling sets like Brenna, Brandon, Brody and Brooklyn.
Is this a baby naming mistake? Not necessarily. It's possible that real-life siblings could reap benefits from having similar names, like an enhanced sense of family cohesion. But the character-naming advice is a good reminder that names have an audience outside the family, and that similar names can cause confusion or even make your kids stand out less as individuals.
3. Middle names are an afterthought in daily life. Reality check: not one of the guides I read said a word about middle names. That's because we meet fictional characters out and about in the world, where middle names are seldom seen or heard.
When you're choosing a baby name you choose two names, first and middle. Both feel like momentous decisions. But unless you plan to call your child by a double-barreled name, one of those name choices matters a thousand times more than the other.
4. A name with strong associations can hem a character in. Fictional characters have predetermined strengths and storylines. That makes it tempting to tailor the name to the character arc. If you overdo it, though, you risk turning your character into a cartoon – or telegraphing a plot twist.
As any parent can tell you, real-life kids are far less predictable than their fictional counterparts. Apples frequently do fall far from their trees, and your child may grow up to be someone very different from what you imagine. The name you choose for a baby has to be flexible enough to fit any future.
5. Google before you commit. You've just completed your brilliant crime novel. The devious murderer fairly leaps off the page! Her name: "Laura M. Wattenberg." Umm…say what? I'm just a humble baby namer, not a killer! Scenarios like that one encourage fiction writers to Google the full names of key characters to check for conflicts.
The mere existence of a name doppelganger isn't necessarily a problem, either for a fictional person or a real-life one. People with common names routinely have hundreds or thousands of name twins. But the more distinctive a name is, the more a doppelganger will trip people up. Even in the case of more popular names it's worth checking to make sure that the full name, including middle initial, doesn't have a potentially troublesome association.
Last year, a British blogger scored global headlines with the claim that the familiar baby name Gary was on the verge of extinction in the U.K. Gary's fate was supposed to be an emblem of how new name inventions are taking over at the expense of traditional classics. The irony is that Gary is anything but a traditional classic. It's a trendy, made-up celebrity name – just one of a past generation.
When a name has been around for our whole lives, it's easy to take its bona fides for granted. We don't question its roots or ask whether it's a "real" name (as if modern names were "fake"!) In fact, the names of our parents' and grandparents' generations were a mix of the classic and the then-trendy.
All of the names below will sound familiar, or even old. But it wasn't so very long ago that they were the oh-so-modern choices standing out among the classics.
Brenda. In the late 1930s debutante Brenda Frazier was a popular sensation, regularly referred to just by her distinctive first name. 1n 1940, the comic strip "Brenda Starr, Reporter" adopted Frazier's name as the height of glamorous modernity. Together these real and fictional Brendas launched a decades-long name trend.
Brenda Frazier's Debutante Ball on the Cover of Life Magazine
Cheryl. Think of Cheryl as the Gracelyn or Audriana of the 1940s. It started as a mashup of fashionable pieces and parts, but grew into a life of its own.
Gary. Once upon a time, Gary was just a surname occasionally used as boy's given name, like Lacy or Manley. But in 1925, Hollywood agent Nan Collins suggested that young actor Frank Cooper take the name of her hometown: Gary, Indiana. Gary Cooper became a screen legend, and a "traditional favorite" name was born.
A Newly Minted Cary Cooper in 1926
Sharon. Sharon goes back to the Bible as place name, but it's not nearly so traditional as a baby name. The name got a boost in the 1920s thanks to the silent film "The Skyrocket," then blasted off in the '30s-'50s alongside similar trendy names like Cheryl and Karen.
Gloria. The Latin word for glory seems like a baby name natural, but Social Security Administration records record a total of only 6 Glorias born in the period 1885-1890. Skip ahead 60 years to the period of 1945-50 and the Gloria tally soars to 69,925. Literary uses of the name first got it started around the turn of the century, then silent film star Gloria Swanson made it a hit in the 1920s.
Gloria Swanson in the 1920 Film Why Change Your Wife?
Darren. If I had to list a country of origin for this name, it would be Hollywood. Actor Darren McGavin, singer Bobby Darin and sitcom husband Darrin Stevens all helped make the name a 1960s hit. That's two adopted stage names and a fictional name – a name built of dreams.
It's not just Grace and Lily any more. Words like Serenity and Genesis now rank among America's top 100 baby names, and options from Willow and Winter to Maverick and King are rising fast. Are there still attractive, inspiring meaning names that haven't been discovered?
I've gone hunting and come up with 41 prospects, with styles ranging from antique to ultra-modern. To make my list, a word/name had to be:
Meaningful, in the right way. I focused on popular realms of word crossovers, like nature names and positive concepts.
In step with name style. No matter how uplifting a word's meaning is, it needs the right sound to work as a name. You'll never meet a little girl named Pulchritude.
All about the word. Word names are the one baby name category where meaning is style. A word that's too familiar as a name, like Constance, or a name that's too arcane as a word, like Ataraxia, loses that meaning/style fusion.
Rare. No name on this list was given to more than a hundred boys or girls last year.
CREATIVE WORD NAMES:
Read more: Baby Names Are Getting Ready to Rule