How-to articles on naming fictional characters are a dime a dozen. But most are a litany of tips — some important, others not so much. So I thought I’d try boiling the best of the advice down to a single sentence. Here’s what I came up with:
“Each character’s name should fit the setting, fit the character, and be distinct within the story.”
The sentence contains three different objectives, so let’s look out each one separately:
Fit the setting
The name should be appropriate for the time and place in which the story occurs. A romance set in 18th-century England could be between an Elizabeth and a Frederick, but not a Nevaeh and a Jayden. Similarly, the protagonist of a 24th-century space opera could be named something standard/plain (John) or futuristic (Loxxan), but probably not something very old (Holmketill), or even slightly old (Clarence).
Fit the character
The name should suit the character, primarily in terms of permanent descriptors (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity), but also, perhaps, in terms of personality traits (e.g., bubbly, gracious, haughty).
Stereotyping in general is bad, but when it comes to character names, it’s very useful: You want the name to give the correct impression of the character right away. A woman from India should be named Padma, not Margaret. A man from Germany should be called Armin, not Oakley.
You could also take it a step further and choose a name that reflects the character’s personality in a subtle way. A friendly woman could be an Amy, while a complex woman could be Demetria. Do this mainly with sounds and associations, which will be picked up instantly by the reader.
Be distinct within the story
The name should not look or sound similar to any of the other names in the story, or else the reader could get confused. Pay special attention to first letters and to repeated sounds. If the protagonists are sisters, name them Mila and Harriet, not Katie and Kelly. Likewise, if the main characters are brothers, use the names Brian and Luke, not Aidan and Adam.
A few weeks ago, I got an email from a reader looking for lists of old-fashioned double names. She was aiming for names like Thelma Dean, Eula Mae, and Gaynell — names that would have sounded trendy in the early 1900s. She also mentioned that she’d started a list of her own.
So I began scouring the interwebs. I tracked down lists of old-fashioned names, and lists of double names…but I couldn’t find a decent list of double names that were also old-fashioned.
I loved the idea of such a list, though, so I suggested that we work together to create one. She generously sent me the pairings she’d collected so far, and I used several different records databases to find many more.
I restricted my search to names given to girls born in the U.S. from 1890 to 1930. I also stuck to double names that I found written as single names, because it’s very likely that these pairings were used together in real life (i.e., that they were true double names and not merely first-middle pairings).
Pairings that seemed too timeless, like Maria Mae and Julia Rose, were omitted. I also took out many of the pairings that feature now-trendy names — think Ella, Emma, and Lucy — because they just don’t sound old-fashioned anymore (though they would have a few decades ago).
The result isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a decent sampling of real-life, old-fashioned double names. I’ve organized them by second name, and I also added links to popularity graphs for names that were in the SSA data during the correct time period (early 1900s).
A couple of weeks ago, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in dramatic fashion (with a score of 8-7 in the 10th inning of the 7th game).
So will we see a rise in the number of babies with Cubs-inspired names (like Wrigley) this year? Probably! Here are some recent examples:
Wrigley – Katie Stam Irk (a former Miss America) and her husband Brian welcomed a baby boy several days before the final game of the series. After the Cubs emerged victorious, they named the baby Wrigley Oliver.
Wrigley – “Bachelorette” couple Chris Siegfried (a former Chicago Cubs relief pitcher) and his wife Desiree welcomed a baby boy in October and named him Asher Wrigley.
Faith Victory – Chicago parents Jason and Kristy Amato welcomed a baby girl in October and named her Faith Victory.
Clark and Addison – Cubs fans Scott and Amber McFarland welcomed boy-girl twins in late June and named them Clark (son) and Addison (daughter), “after the iconic intersection outside Wrigley Field.”
The names Clark and Addison were also given to a pair of male-female red panda cubs born at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo last year.
And here’s the most impressive set of Cubs-babies I’ve seen so far: A generation ago, Cubs fanatics Julie and Ralph Dynek named their five children Addison (son), Clark (son), Sheffield (son), Grace Waveland (daughter), and Ivy Marie Wrigley Diamond (daughter). The first four were named after the four streets that surround Wrigley Field, and the fifth was named after the field’s famous ivy-covered brick outfield wall.
And don’t forget this 2007 baby named Wrigley Fields. (Visitors who commented on that post mentioned three more Wrigleys, an Addison, and a Clark.)
Have you encountered any other Cubs-inspired baby names lately, either in the news or in real life?
According to the New York City Department of Health, Bella and Max were the most popular names for licensed dogs* in New York City in 2015.
Here are NYC’s top female dog names:
Bella (…vs. 69th for baby girls in NY state, 2015)
And here are NYC’s top male dog names:
Max (…vs. 85th for baby boys in NY state, 2015)
Uniquely popular names by breed include Snoopy for beagles, Tyson for boxers, Lulu for French bulldogs, Chico for chihuahuas, Frank for dachshunds, Dolly for poodles, Mugsy for pugs, Snow for Siberian huskies, and Chanel and Gucci for Yorkshire terriers.
Apple, Chlorophyll, Icarus, Kinky, Melon, Omicron, Smacker, Swallow, Winsome, Yoyo…the English names chosen by (or assigned to) native Chinese speakers are often not so great.
And, in many cases, they’re later regretted. Here’s what a Hong Kong business student Fragile Chan had to say about his English name:
“I started using ‘Fragile’ when I was 14,” he says. “I first encountered the word in my English class and I chose it as my name because I liked how it’s pronounced.”
Chan says his name makes it easy for others to remember him and it’s an easy conversation-starter when he meets new people. But in his experience, having an uncommon name isn’t always pleasant.
“I am tired of explaining my name to others when I need to introduce myself. Some people even mock me for having a ‘fragile heart’,” he says. Now Chan has decided to change his name to Nathan. “I would like to be less weird in formal situations,” he says.
One U.S. entrepreneur has created a site called Best English Name, which helps Chinese students choose more appropriate English names. Site-suggested names include “Davis, Max, Eli, and Riley” for males and “Elody, Ava, Jolie, and Ellie” for females. These are a lot better than Kinky and Melon, and style-wise they’re fairly appropriate for current teenagers.
But I think the best advice out there comes from Philip Guo’s blog post How to choose an English name, because it can be applied to any age group.
His main recommendation? Go to the SSA’s website, find the top 100 names for your birth year, and choose one from the list for your gender. He says:
You must choose your name from one of these 100 names. Even if you randomly choose a name (for your gender, of course), then congratulations, I guarantee that you have chosen a better name than most of your friends who tried to be creative!
So a 15-year-old student (b. 2001) can choose from names like:
Isabel, Katie, Mia, Sophia, Zoe
Aidan, Chase, Isaiah, Jack, Noah
But a 40-year-old business-person (b. 1976) can choose from names that might be a better fit for his/her generation, such as:
Amy, Dana, Monica, Tina, Wendy
Chad, Dennis, Peter, Shane, Tony
Best of all, every top 100 list includes names appropriate for people of various ages. For example, these names were on both the 1976 and the 2001 lists:
Anna, Elizabeth, Michelle, Natalie, Sarah
Adam, David, John, Nathan, Victor
Guo’s other recommendations include ignoring name definitions entirely and sticking to the exact version of the name found in the top 100. He also suggests choosing a name that sounds somewhat like one’s birth name, e.g., the English name Shawn would work well for a Chinese man named Sheng.
Do you have any other good advice for people (Chinese people in particular) seeking English names?