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A Hottie by Any Other Name

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Mar. 1st, 2014 | 02:59 pm

So I'm reading another YA paranormal romance. I'm frequently disappointed by these, mostly for reasons that fall under the "romantic interest is a jerk" and/or "protagonist is a dopey pushover" categories, but I am convinced that these problems are not inherent to the genre. Just, you know, frequent pitfalls. Plus, this one is an Alice in Wonderland retelling, and I am a sucker for some Alice in Wonderland, y'all.

However, in this book - I'll go ahead and tell you that it is Splintered by A. G. Howard, since you could probably figure it out - I've encountered a completely unrelated issue. It's one that I've seen before in different books of various genres. It is the saddling of characters who are supposed to be romantic/sexy/attractive with names that are none of the above.

Is it shallow that I have so much trouble taking seriously our protagonist's attraction to a guy named Jeb? JEB, you guys. His name is JEBEDIAH. I'm fairly confident in saying that no name that ends with "diah" is going to be loaded with sex appeal. As to the question "is it shallow," quite possibly. But I'm not the only one who has this problem.

Years ago, I was at a writers' conference in which a romance author on one of the panels told a story. Some time before, she had had another romance novel in the works, and was auctioning off the right to name its male lead. The proceeds would go to charity. Here is where the awkward starts: the winner of the auction was her father. Here is where the awkward gets worse: he wanted to name the male lead after himself. Here is where the author put her foot down: his name was Melvin.

Because, unfair as it might be to the Melvins of the world, you cannot, in modern-day America, slap that name on a character who is supposed to be swoonworthy. Hey, fiction doesn't always mirror real life, and it doesn't have to. Romance authors rarely give their male leads bad teeth, or have them catch icky diseases, even those those things happen in reality. There are things that writers have reason to want to avoid.

The names that do and don't work for a sexy character (or a scary character, or a cute character, etc.) vary from person to person and era to era. Some names may work or not work for a specific reader for reasons that have to do with that reader's experiences. ("Jebediah" might just be a problem for me because I grew up in a small town in the South and didn't really like the redneck culture I often encountered. To me, "Jeb" is a guy in dirty overalls who takes potshots at 'possums.) Other names, however, have pretty broadly-held associations, at least for a given time period or a given culture. Which brings us to LIST TIME!
  1. Just Getting Older with Age - A name that was very popular a generation or two ago but isn't now will feel like an "old" name - a "mom" name or a "grandparent" name - and probably not be sexy. Think Doris, Mildred, Clarence, or Lloyd, all common baby names in the 1920s. When Jane Eyre came out (slight spoilers maybe, but you've had since 1847 to read it), "Bertha" was a sexy foreign name. How many sexy Berthas do you read about now?

  2. Nobody Names Their Daughter Jezebel - Some names are strongly associated with specific people. Even if your male lead is German, you might think twice about naming him Adolf. The associations don't necessarily even have to be negative. I once read a thriller in which the heroine's supposedly sexy tough-guy husband was named Mickey. I just . . . Mickey is a mouse. He's a mouse.

  3. "Bond. Jimmy Bond." - Doesn't have the same ring, does it? Sometimes it's not the name itself, but what the character goes by. I can easily see a Robert as a romantic interest, but Bob? Not so much. And it's not just about whether a name is attractive or not: there are other implications. If you want to write someone snooty, would he go by Lawrence or Larry? Augustin or Gus? What if you want to write someone very laid-back and casual?


I don't intend this post to be mean! I feel the pain of real-life people who have these names. I myself have a first name that peaked in popularity between 1950 and 1955, over thirty years before I was born, so it always felt like a name for people my mom's age. That's part of why I go by an unrelated nickname. If I were writing a book set in the present, with a character my age, I probably wouldn't give her a name like mine unless it was a plot point. Certainly my name does not evoke a "twentysomething" image, any more than Melvin evokes a "smoldering hottie" image.

You can, of course, give a character a contradictory name if you mean to play around with expectations or otherwise make a point with it. (See "plot point" in the paragraph above.) Maybe it's an old family name. Maybe your character hates it - or loves it. Maybe she goes by something else, and her real name is an embarrassing secret.

Or maybe you just want to play it for laughs. I must take this opportunity to recommend the awesome Dickens-spoof radio series "Bleak Expectations," which includes such wonderful names as Mr. Skinflint Parsimonius ("who was, ironically, the most generous of men") and Mr. Gently Benevolent ("who was, ironically, a complete bastard").

None of this is to say that real people can't be sexy or silly or serious or anything else regardless of their names. It's just one of the many things to consider when you're putting together a fictional character. Names are neat! There's so much you can do with them! They can pull really pull their weight, making readers assume or feel things about a character the moment she's introduced. Just make sure you aren't giving her a name that pulls its weight in the opposite direction of what you intend.

Favorite/least favorite names, fictional or otherwise? Other thoughts?

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Comments {7}

(no subject)

from: magic_7_words
date: Mar. 1st, 2014 11:57 pm (UTC)
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I've made up names for quite a few fantasy characters, so they don't have real-world connotations like datedness. But I do have definite preferences when it comes to the sounds that make up a name. Liquids (L, R), voiceless stops (P, T, K), and other alveolar sounds (S, N) are far more likely than other letters to end up in the names of major characters. I'm less fond of bilabials and voiced consonants. If you meet a character of mine whose name starts with a B (bilabial AND voiced), you're well served not to trust them. And let's not even talk about affricates.

Also, 'A' appears to be my favorite vowel.

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Anica Lewis

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from: anicalewis
date: Mar. 3rd, 2014 03:52 pm (UTC)
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Haha, I apparently share your love for A in character names. A year or so ago, I realized that every protagonist of a long work I'd ever written had an A in his or her name. They didn't make the same sounds, but they were always there. That's no longer true, as the piece I'm currently working on has two protagonists and neither has an A in his name, but it's still true of all my long fantasy stories. :P

And don't worry, we don't have to talk about affricates. Mostly because I don't know what they are.

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(no subject)

from: magic_7_words
date: Mar. 3rd, 2014 04:10 pm (UTC)
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Hahaha. In English they're the 'J' and 'CH' sounds. Which makes it odd that I'd dislike them, because my name starts with one...

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Jackie

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from: fabulousfrock
date: Mar. 2nd, 2014 04:22 pm (UTC)
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For me, it's the character more than the name. I mean, Melvin would really be a stretch, but even then, if I loved Melvin's character I would probably start digging it. I could totally see falling for a Clarence or a Lloyd if the personality was right. I saw some people complaining about "Po" in Graceling but I loved Po, and I think objectively, that is not a very hot name, but once I fell for Po it didn't matter.

My own characters have often showed up with names that I was initially like, "That's your name? Really? Well...okay."

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Anica Lewis

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from: anicalewis
date: Mar. 3rd, 2014 03:55 pm (UTC)
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True that. The character is much more important. I just think it's good to, when you can, pick out a name that doesn't work against you.

I had never actually thought about Po's name! I never took issue with Peeta's, either. I think my standards change when the story isn't contemporary realistic fiction.

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(no subject)

from: magic_7_words
date: Mar. 3rd, 2014 05:55 pm (UTC)
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Oh, Peeta's name definitely lost him points, for me. But it worked, because he wasn't supposed to start out with any points--he was supposed to be the sweet but not-particularly-attractive "other guy" who took a whole book to overcome a slightly negative first impression. Which is exactly what happened.

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angeladegroot

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from: angeladegroot
date: Mar. 7th, 2014 05:03 pm (UTC)
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I hear ya! And as far as names I have trouble with, I just can't say the shortened version of Richard. It's juvenile, I know but, I had a co-worker who went by Dick and it was impossible for me call him that. Even in emails - so I just didn't call him anything.

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