5 Lessons Fiction Writers Can Teach Baby Namers

Feb 18th 2016

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:

1. Names set expectations. Imagine the stories that these sets of protagonists would headline: Sebastian and Arabella, Buck and Dixie, Throndir and Aeryndel.

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. 


February 18, 2016 6:43 PM

Using different sounds and initials to avoid confusion is food-for-thought.  I have 2 daughters whose names both begin with with the /k/ sound and I know at least one of my friends has struggled to remember which one is older.

February 19, 2016 12:01 AM

I have such a hard time keeping a pair of siblings straight, even though I've known them for 2 years. Their names are Ella and Isabelle, and even though they only share the -ell syllable, I can't ever remember who's who. I've had to just train my brain to remember that they are in alphabetical order, oldest to youngest.

February 19, 2016 1:22 AM

Oooh I'm so curious to know which guides to fictional naming you've been reading Laura.  Can you share?

February 19, 2016 7:25 AM

I write a lot of fiction and attend a workshop with a lot of other fiction writers, and these points definitely all come up. At the moment, I'm reading a friend's piece and circling all the confusing one-syllable male names that are making me lose the plot: i.e. Brock and Bob. Another friend has some teenage characters called Agatha and Cathy, that I circle every time they appear as "I do not believe girls this age would have these names."

One disappointing thing about writing fiction, at least if you're aiming for semi-realism, is that you can't use all the leftover baby names you love but your partner thinks are too crazy: characters still have to sound kind of right for the time/place they inhabit. So you can have a protagonist called Guinevere, but if her best friends are called Octavia, Cassiopeia and Iseult, it's not going to be believable.

I realize this post was about applying fiction to reality, but applying reality to fiction is a fun topic too!

February 19, 2016 6:48 PM

Yeah, my reaction to "fiction writers can choose names purely for effect" was "well, ummm, kinda sometimes...". :) Nothing throws off a historical fiction quite as much as names that are Totally Wrong For The Period. And the history doesn't even need to be ancient: a book set in the 1960's shouldn't have a main character named Madison or Brittany.

February 19, 2016 9:19 PM

Yeah, I was thrown by Mad Men characters named Megan and Bethany, just not typical for young women in the 60s.

February 22, 2016 2:52 AM

I love writing fiction...and the best bit is naming the characters!

February 22, 2016 9:52 AM

> But the character-naming advice is a good reminder that names have an audience outside the family, ...


Great reminder that a name is not (only) a private affair between the parents and the child, but outsiders (teachers, colloeagues, the government, any trade partners) have to use it as well!

February 22, 2016 2:29 PM

I can give Mad Men a little pass on those names. When main characters are Betty, Peggy and Joan, I think it's okay to have a couple of outliers - I mean as long as the names actually existed back then - unlike say a Nevaeh or something. I always wondered about Sally. She was probably born in early fifties. I didn't look it up and only am going by my experience, but a Debbie or Brenda would make more sense to me even though I'm sure Sally would not be unusual. 

I wonder if Megan was popular in French Canada which I think Megan was from?

By Amy3
February 22, 2016 3:11 PM

I used to know a mother-daughter pair, Melissa and Melinda. I had such a hard time keeping them straight. I finally lit on the fact that "daughter" and Melinda both had Ds in them. 

As for fictional characters with confusing names, how about Criminal Minds with Erin Strauss and Aaron Hotchner? I know some people pronounce those names differently and there would be no confusion, but I say them the same and people on the show do too. True, Aaron is most often Hotch, but I find it unnecessarily confusing. Plus, she doesn't seem the right age to be an Erin!

February 22, 2016 4:16 PM

Takes me back to Mad Men. Don had secretary Dawn. I think it was the writers having fun with the audience.

February 23, 2016 2:50 AM

Neither Megan nor Bethany was in use in the US to any degree until the second half of the twentieth century.  A Megan or Bethany the age of the Mad Men characters would have been scarcer than hen's teeth.  Since Megan is Welsh, I would be very surprised if it was in use in Francophone Canada at the time of Megan Draper's birth.  OTOH there were plenty of Sallys.  Susie would have been even more characteristic of the time.  Brenda was possible, but already a bit passe.  Debbie OTOH was very common.  The characteristic names of the time were Linda (scads of Lindas), Carol, Barbara, Deborah, Susan, Ann(e).  I was born in 1944 and was in college when JFK was shot and the Beatles came on the scene.  So I experienced firsthand all the Mad Men events.  There just were no Megans and Bethanys.  Joan's son Kevin was also named a bit ahead of its popularity.

February 23, 2016 6:11 AM

Yes, yes on all the names you listed; spot on to me Lindas snd Susies! And yes, Kevin (maybe Joan was a little ahead of her time being a modern woman) would have been about my age, but probably was born a couple of years later. Still, I did love Mad Men so...

February 23, 2016 2:51 PM

One of our rules has been unique first initials. It's so much easier for labeling toys lol.

One time middle names matter is when they (or a nickname) are part of the name a child is usually called. For instance our fifth is Katherine Susanna; we call her Katie Sue. There is already a living Katie in the family, her great grandma. So it distinguishes them (and is cute.) 

Speaking of her great grandmas, both of my grandmas go by derivatives of their middle names. Mary Katherine has alternately gone by Mary K. (with the K) and Katie her whole life. Professionally or in formal correspondence, M. K. Lastname (in a time when correspondence from a single woman might not have gotten much respect...) My other grandma, Catherine Veronica, has always been Ronnie.

So, there are times when the middle name is just as important- if it's part of what you intend to call the child. :)

February 23, 2016 4:12 PM

I am one of those "Deborah(Debra)"s born in the 50's, but most or us went by Debbie or Debby(no Debbi).  Sally was a fairly common name (she was the little sister in the Dick and Jane readers).  I had a Kevin in my grade at school.  We had a lot of Marilyns, Marlene(Marleen)s,JoAnn(e)s, Katherine/Kathy/Catherine/Cathy)s, and an incredible number of Susans.  There were no Brittanys and definitely no Madisons.  I never even met a Sara until I was in high school.


The use of the name Megan in Mad Men was so wrong for the 60's and hence grating that I could never quite believe in the series thereafter.

February 23, 2016 4:40 PM

I believe the creators of Mad Men used names very deliberately (if not with complete period accuracy!) Thus the character of Bethany represented an aspect of  Betty (or Don's attitude to her), while Megan may have been a deliberate echo of Peggy. 

February 24, 2016 11:00 PM

I found Bethany less unbelievable than Megan. It's a biblical place name that I could see being used by religious parents in a one-off, idiosyncratic way. So no huge wave of Bethanies yet, but I feel like it sounds naturally namey and could have suggested itself to parents, particularly if they were frequent bible readers. 

Megan's actual increase in fact starts later than Bethany's, and I found it especially unbelievable in a francophone context. So while Bethany seemed unlikely, Megan seemed impossible. Also, what do people think of Harry Crane's wife being named Jennifer?  I feel like Mad Men got the main names so right (Don, Betty, Roger, Sally, Bobby, Henry) that when they get them wrong it bothers me. 

February 25, 2016 1:07 AM

I have known MANY Quebecers who were born when Megan would have been, and I would be beyond shocked to meet one was named Megan. However, what bothered me even more than her name (which I stopped thinking about as I got to know the character) was the fact that her parents' French accents were nowhere close to Quebec accents. There are so many talented Francophone Quebec actors, why choose a Brit and Belgian? Or at least try to simulate an appropriate accent! A wrong name can shatter suspension of disbelief and so can the wrong accent. When creating fictional characters, it's important to consider all dimensions, since different segments of your viewers/readers will come in with their own sets of experiences and knowledge. By making her come from Quebec, the writers set up certain expectations and then they failed to meet those expectations on several fronts.

At least Jessica Paré got the Quebecois swearing right :)

February 25, 2016 6:26 AM

I actually like Megan's name, although I agree that it was completely out of time, and I don't see why the character wouldn't have had a French name anyway (unless that comes up later; I didn't see all the seasons).

What I liked about Megan-the-name was that it sounded completely different from everyone else, and completely modern, as though she was touching down from another planet. I remember a scene where she and Betty meet in a doorway and Betty looks exactly like a 1950s suburban housewife and Megan looks modern and urban and lives in an amazing apartment as I remember. Betty already looks like an anachronism and Megan is the face of the time.

I'm trying to think of an authentic name for the period that would sound so modern to me and give me all those same impressions. Ideas?

Karyn: I agree about the parents. There's no shortage of Québecois actors. Why go out of your way to mess things up?

February 25, 2016 9:32 AM

I've never seen Mad Men, but I'm wondering if it fits the story at all for this Megan character to have renamed herself as an adult? Maybe she was Marguerite-called-Meg-in-English, but then encountered the name Megan (in college, say) and decided to use it for herself? She would still have been pretty far ahead of the curve with the name, but it wouldn't be so utterly preposterous.

That sort of name-story can be included in a written medium, but it's harder in episodic television (where every episode can have a different half-dozen "authors" attached to it by the time it airs).

February 25, 2016 2:25 PM

HNG, I like that backstory, and agree that it would work better in print, but since they didn't give any backstory, it just felt jarring.

Emily.ei, I also agree that her name was chosen to sound modern and perhaps a tad exotic compared to the very traditional names of the other characters. However, I also believe that choosing an authentic French name used in Quebec at that time would have achieved the same result. (I've found that Americans often find that French names sound sophisticated and one surely would have contrasted significantly with the other characters.

These are the top 20 names given to girls in Quebec in 1940-45, when Megan would have been born:

Lise, Nicole, Denise, Monique, Louise, Micheline, Claudette, Huguette, Pierrette, Thérèse, Suzanne, Gisèle, Hélène, Ginette, Francine, Madeleine, Michelle, Ghislaine, Pauline, Jacqueline

They're not all winners, but at least one of these could have given her an air of modern sophistication, no? Even a French name that wasn't yet used at that time would have been better. Even her last name didn't feel Quebecois.

Anyway, great character but very poorly named.

February 25, 2016 2:31 PM

It could be, as Megan is an actress and something of a free-spirited type. However, if I'm not mistaken her parents call her Megan as well, and neither of them seem like they would take to a college-aged name change (her father is a somewhat distant intellectual ideologue, and her mother is close with her but does not seem "indulgent" enough to go with a name change. I think her mother would call her "Marguerite" if that was the name they gave her.

The name isn't presented as being out of the ordinary at all...her parents, husband, step children, coworkers, etc. just call her Megan. No one ever asks "short for something?" or anything of the sort.  Now, Mad Men is a show with tons and tons of characters, so it probably is hard to come up with names for all of them, especially when many of the female characters are secretaries who get little screen time. 

I see the point about "Megan" being a fitting contrast to "Betty," but I think a sleek-sounding French name would have had the same effect without being jarring.

As for the accents, at one point Megan's mother says "I am French but I live in Canada."  I thought this was meant to be ambiguous: is she ethnically French but is in fact a Canadian, or is she an immigrant from France to Quebec?

February 25, 2016 11:27 PM

A fictional name anachronism that drives me crazy is the ~45 year old Madison on Fear the Walking Dead

February 26, 2016 12:45 AM

At least one Wikia has Madison's age as "mid to late 30's", not 45. Of course, she can't be older than 32 for the name "Madison" to make sense (Splash came out in 1984), and the actress playing her is actually 51, so there's definitely some anachronism going on.

February 26, 2016 7:21 AM

Well, time to call a serial killer Laura M. Watternberg! (kidding)

I myself haven't watched Mad Men, but the discussion brings to mind another 60s TV name anchronism -- Emma Karn from Aquarius. She would've been born in 1951, when Emma was #174. Borderline common to us if viewed in isolation, but that's just about 1,700 Emmas, the lowest it had ever been at that point...and her parents weren't exactly the sort of people to buck naming expectations. Not Megan-level, but suspect. Did they think audiences wouldn't be smart enough to picture a teenage Mary or Susan?

On the other end of the spectrum, the names of much of The Big Bang Theory's cast are yet another thing counting against it.

I also find myself questioning Hazel Grace of The Fault In Our Stars. Hazel is back, but it wasn't when she would've been born in 1996. Certainly one could find a name with the same quirky-chic idea that would actually fit chronologically. Then there's the filler middle -- I suppose Grace would be more cutting-edge at the time as a rebellion against the scores of Maries, Lynns, and Anns, but surely parents willing to name their daughter Hazel in '96 would be even more creative with the middle position.

February 26, 2016 11:20 AM

Emma was definitely around in 1950, but not ubiquitous.  I was born in 1944, and there was an Emma in my high school class.  She had an identical twin Lisa, and I remember thinking "poor Emma, she got such a clunky name, and her sister got such a pretty one.

March 4, 2016 11:47 AM

An anachronism that really jumped out at me was 2000 movie Down to You (didn't actually see it, so no idea if there's an explanation), featuring Julia Stiles as a college student called Imogen.

I am not buying an American born in the late 70s being an Imogen. 2000 was right about when English musician Imogen Heap was becoming known as well, so it was probably ripped off of her directly.

March 4, 2016 5:31 PM

I was just looking at the SSA data, and Megan actually saw some use (in the US) starting in 1922, and was already starting to take off in 1943-ish, i.e. the very beginning of the Baby Boom era. So a USA-born Megan on Mad Men would be unusual, but not unbelievable. I have no idea what the numbers would be for Canada, though, especially Quebec.

@Emily.ei, is the movie character's name spelled Imogen or Imogene? Because the latter spelling saw steady-but-rare use throughout the 70s and 80s, on the order of 5 girls per year. The final-e-less spelling does occur during Imogene's heydey (the 1920's, peak year 1927), then doesn't show up at all between 1950 and 1992, but actually beats Imogene's numbers when it reappears in 1993.

March 13, 2016 6:57 PM

I have a coworker whose son's names are Ethan and Evan. For the life of me I can never remember which one is which. 

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