I was reading an article in the New York Times the other day about a New York couple who had failed to recognize that having a baby might impact their fussy pre-infant interior decorating. That, of itself, was a fairly sad commentary on a certain high ideal lifestyle that I'm sure no one reading this column has ever aspired to. However, the eye-catching note to the article was the kid's name. Beckett. Now, that's sort a nice name. For a character in a play. Or a slain bishop of the 12th century. It got me to thinking about names and my even more recent observation that I know more dogs with people names than traditional dog names and more kids with last names as first names than I do kids named John or Mary, or dogs named Spot (one) and Fido (none). I'm even guilty of it. We have a dog named Bonnie. In our defense, it's a quality, that of being bonnie, as opposed to the mostly out-of-fashion first name. I went to school with at least three of them.
Bonnie plays with Sophie and Susie, Henry (2), Dexter, Petey, Molly (several) and Audrey. When we call our dogs it sounds like we're yelling at kids reluctant to come off the playground, which, in fact, they are.
In recent years, giving kids surnames as first names has become wildly popular. Once the way of identifying family connections, now any last name seems useful as a first name. Bailey, Taylor, Tyler, etc., have seen an upswing in popularity although it's unclear if the parents have any Taylors, Tylers, or Baileys in their ancestry. Genealogists love it if a maternal family name is bestowed upon a child, linking him to a branch that might otherwise be uncertain. This is especially true when virtually everyone in a family's history is named John, Mary, or Robert. Thoughtfully tacking on a mothers' maiden name as a middle name can clear up some dubious history. But I digress.
The other new thing is giving kids monikers that, at least in my generation, were considered hopelessly old-fashioned. A surge of Oscars, Henrys, and Jaspers have supplanted the Travises that were so popular with Generation X. I believe that all of this is an effort to give a child a unique name, to separate him or her from the field, to distinguish this child from all the Bobbies and Susies of the world. But it backfires. The minute someone comes up with a unique name, it's no longer unique. Except maybe for the baby I met who was named after the call letters of a sports network. Now, that was unique. I am reminded of George Costanza of Seinfeld who announced that he thought "Seven" was a perfect name. Which was co-opted by his then fiancée's cousin. In typical George fashion (and the name George is no longer in fashion, relegated to the scrap heap of people born before 1965), he went ballistic and cried foul.
You can pretty much tell within a few years what generation a person was born into by their name. My mother's generation was filled with Dorothys, Helens, and Marges. My grandmother had two friends named Florence, and Ethyl was considered a top pick. Generational identification is probably more apt in women's names where Linda, Debbie, Carol, and, alas, Susan, were the most popular names of my years. There were five Sues on my dorm floor. We desperately sought ways to fancify the name with weird spellings: Suzin, Soosan, Susyn and the like. Most of us gave it up after a while, weary of having to spell it out for teachers and JC Penney catalogue operators. This is similar to another trait of modern parents who add or remove letters in simple names in an effort to have their child stand out, with the backfiring result that the kid never gets to have one of those hair brushes with her name on it, or a name plate for his door. Genifer, comes to mind, and spellings that defy commonly held rubrics on pronunciation.
Unlike women's names, men's names can be repeated generation to generation by the patrilineal tradition of junior. Even little boys today sport names handed down from dad and grandpa, here and there a Robbie and a Ricky appear among the Tylers and Baileys (who might also be girls).
An entirely different sensibility applies to character names. Because characters are visualized by words on a page, it's just hunky dory to give them cool looking names. It even helps to distinguish the hero or heroine from the villain with a visual clue. Heroes get, well, heroic names. You'll rarely find a protagonist with a wussy name, and only in high literature. But, of course this is all subjective. If I find that the name Willis is a bit namby-pamby for a hero, but the name Will is not, it's probably because of my great-uncle Willis, sometimes called Bill, who was, shall we say, a bit namby-pamby. At least when I knew him. I wrote an entire novel with my lead character named Kirby. No matter how I defended it, my agent just couldn't wrap her mind around a man named Kirby being a worthy first chair character. We fought about it for a long time before I capitulated. I still like the name, and turned it into his last name. New first name Jack. There's a solid, all around manly name. She loved it. (NB: the novel is still unpublished. Hmmm.)
One thing an author should be cognizant of - and some, frankly, are not - is making a name pronounceable to the reader. Even if the book is never read out loud, it's just plain cruel to have a name that makes the reader stumble each and every time she comes to it. Unless, of course, the book is a translation. Aleksie Gararamondakovka. Just try reading that to yourself. I think that's why it takes forever to read War and Peace.
The other difficulty in coming up with good character names is that all the really nice names belong to people I know. I'm a little squeamish about using the name of personal friends and family, or even acquaintances because the characters are not who they are, and there should be no mistake about that. The trick is, just like saying your own name over and over, eventually the association is gone and the name becomes the character. The same is true with names we don't like attached to people we do like. It's only a matter of using it a few times before the objectionable association with the name disappears and the name becomes the person himself. Lovely.
Assigning a name to a character is something that is not done lightly. An author really has to think about it, to judge how the name will fit the character's personality: is it a metaphor for the dominant characteristic? Is it simply a pretty name to go with a pretty character? Does it just look good on the page? In The Fortune-Teller's Daughter, my character Ruby Heartwood names herself, choosing a flashy new name in defiance of her plain orphanage-assigned Mary. In Beauty, the recluse Lee Crompton writes under a pseudonym more appropriate to an adventurous mystery writer than his own name, Harris Bellefleur. A pretty looking name for a man who isn't.
Shakespeare is the master of naming characters, which he himself archly suggests in Romeo and Juliet: A rose by any other name...?
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.