5 Lessons Fiction Writers Can Teach Baby Namers
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.