What’s In A Name?

♣  Are names important?
♣  Does your name define you?
  Can a name influence the way you are perceived?

We have no control over who our parents will be.  And it is them, not us, who choose our name.  But we are the ones that have to carry this blessing or curse through school and work and dating and life . . .

There have been many studies, which claim that your name can

♣   influence what people think of you
  what job you will do
   and even how lucky you are

Who knows if this is true or not . . .

Some parents name their children after grand-parents or parents, although this seems to have died out a little over the years.

It seems that names generally become popular depending on who is in vogue at the time, ranging from movie stars like John Wayne to musicians, footballers and even to Popes.

In 1990, after Italia ’90 it was David and Jack.  Back in 1979, John Paul was one of the most popular names after the Pope’s visit to Ireland.  David McWilliam’s even named his book, “The Pope’s Children”, after them!

For the characters in my novel, which is set in the States, I spent days scouring lists of the top 100 girls’ names, boys’ names and surnames for different years.  Eventually, I cut out my favourites and had them set out in rows, for close to a week, while I mixed and matched to get the perfect names to suit my characters.

I still have clips of the names in each category – the names that didn’t make the cut – but I’ve found them so handy to be able to choose minor characters without going back to the drawing board.

A great tip I heard years ago was to visit a local graveyard in the area where your characters will live, so that you can choose names appropriate to that place and time.  It was especially good for a ghost story I wrote using Glasnevin Cemetary, both as a source of names and as a setting.

I have tried a couple of ‘name generators’ on-line, but for me, they never came back with anything I would like to use – maybe I’m just too fussy!  But I do feel, that especially in a story, the name alone already has your imagination conjuring up the characters job, social standing, origin etc . . .

I would be most interested in your views and comments, if you would care to share . . .

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About Susan Condon

Irish Writer and Poet. Award winning, published short story writer.

Posted on March 9, 2012, in Writing Tips and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. Ahhh Susan, I could tell you but then…. actually, you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you!!

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  2. Hmmm well being a Samantha , men have often commented on it because Samantha Fox was around at the time and I would get an awful slagging as a teenager!. In fact I was named after the witch Samantha on ‘Bewitched’! (So my Mum tells me) There was a girl in my class in primary school called Natasha, and she was so pretty and exotic looking that I really wanted to have this name. Also I noticed that anyone i knew who was called Wendy was always pretty and sweet natured! So I wanted to change my name for a long time until people started calling me Sam, which is quite cool and I have to say am happy now with it!

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  3. I can see the queue forming in the cemetary right now! I think names are hugely important. I remember being at a workshop where everyone got to pick a name out of the hat, they then had to write a character piece about that person. I got Assumpta Weedle, and I still love the piece I wrote about her:)

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  4. Oooh interesting one! Most times I try to pick names that go with what I’m writing – like you mention above, appropriate to the time – but I’ve had some really spooky coincidences after deciding on a few. One was an exceptionally unusual name and then I went to a new hairdresser and the lady doing my hair shared the same name; another was doing research and finding the same name scratched into the very old desk I was sitting at. And most recently I used my youngest son’s name – my brother remarked that it didn’t sound believable for the time, but I just happened to be reading something and the same name came up… from the year my book is set in… and this man did a really remarkable thing which I am now going to use too. Coincidence, eh? 🙂

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  5. A thought provoking piece, Susan. In olden times it was thought that our names were linked with our power in a very real sense. Many people’s real names were kept secret, whispered into their ears at birth, lest it’s very utterance by others would allow them to have control over us.

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  6. I was named after Laura Ingle from “Little House on the Prarie”. My brother, on the other hand, was named after Gary Glitter (although parents do change story to Gary Lineker when in the presence of certain company).
    It was the 80’s, so I feel we got away with pretty NICE names compared to those out at that time.
    My twin girl cousins are called Martha and Sadie. Aunt & Uncle went back in time with these and I feel this is the way to go.

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    • I always liked Laura as a name and have used it in my stories – maybe I too picked it up from ‘Little House on the Prarie” which we used to watch in my Gran’s on a Sunday evening . . .

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  7. everyone in my family is named Uncle Freddie. even my aunts. you call out, “hey uncle freddie!!” at Thanksgiving, and 30 ferrets all turn around and look.

    i am even called Uncle Freddie. but because I have the whiskers, i wuz given the designation: Sam, so one can tell me apart from the other Uncle Freddies. does that clear things up for you? i hope not.

    i am often mistaken for the ultimate american writer… i think it’s the white fur.. although his name was spelled wif two E’s .. now, as to finding names for your book, as fate would have it, i know two remarkable girls who are overachievers. they already have a young author award or two under their belt and have even sent me a signed copy of their book: “The Strand Prophecy” about a guy who changes the world, one discovery at a time. now these two girls are plugged in. they go to conferences, help young readers, do appearances, and i am blessed to count them as twitter acquaintances, and post lively ferret droll on their facebook.

    oh, the remarkable fate? right? yes.

    seems that just this morning, they posted about “names” and character names on their facebook, and that they have been at some writer conference or another, and they posted this link: http://www.babynames.com/character-names.php on Twitter they are @WinnerTwins on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/winnertwins and their website is: http://motivate2Learn.org i think, Susan that you will find them to be a remarkably wonderful, talented and energetic connection.

    now that i’ve languished here on this blog post for so long, my schedule is all muffed. i have a busy schedule today. nap, snack, swimmy pool bath. then another snack, then a nap, then a massage, and tea with BigFoot. whew!!! wears me out just thinking about it!!

    the tea kettle whistleth

    Sir Samuel Zeus Clemons Tweets at @Samuel_Clemons

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  8. I think character’s names are hugely important. Sometimes to the point of obsessiveness lol! For my first novel – which was based on a Greek myth – I spent a long time researching names so that their meaning would be as close as possible to the meaning of the original Greek character’s names!

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  9. Well, I guess that as the ‘creator’ you’re going to have the inside track on the character’s personality – a browse through a baby name book should ‘flick-a-switch’ in your own head.

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  10. Never thought about this and never realised that it was such hard work! I always assumed that character’s names came fully formed to authors along with their story. 🙂 You’re right though, names are important. I don’t think “Molly Ramsbottom” could be anything other than rotund while “Chloe Farquhar-Smythe” must inevitably be privately educated and probably a snob… 🙂

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    • Neither did I before I started writing Tara. Now I have to analyse every name to see if it matches the profession and point-in-time and other characters I’ve created. I changed the names of a husband and wife in a recent short story numerous times before I settled on the names that conveyed the story I wanted to tell – hope it did the trick!

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  11. Whenever I write fiction set in the South (I’m in the U.S.), it’s hard to write names that are truly Southern, but don’t sound like made-up stereotypes to readers not from here. I really do know plenty of men in real life who go by their first and middle names and the first name is often a diminutive. So, you get “Jimmy Dale” and “Robby Ray.” Same for women … “Wendy Mae” “Liza Jane.” Or, we have old family names, place names as names, Biblical names, etc., that make people sound like they walked out of the 19th century.

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    • Hadn’t thought of those kind of names – and we have plenty here in Ireland too – Ann-Marie, Mary Jane. The only guy’s name I can think of is John-Paul – after the Pope’s visit . . .

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  12. Hi Susan,
    for what it’s worth, i think everything is in a name. If words are the most powerful drug of mankind, then names in fiction (for me) are the Class As. If we writers get the names right, we can convey/suggest all sorts of things about our characters, that is if we get them right! Ho hum! Which, as you suggest, is not so easy, but worth the effort 🙂 One of the hardest things for me is to be objective about names, so many have a personal connotation – which can be very distracting – grrrr! That said, for me,even harder than getting the name right, is getting the title right. I am working on one now for my new novel and it is making my head spin. Do you ( anyone else?) struggle with titles, or is it just me?

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    • I agree with you on the objectivity of names – you always associate names with people you know and how you feel about them. And as for titles – that’s a nightmare for me! I’m quarter way into my novel and a title nowhere in sight. I want two or three words, no “the” and catchy without pigeon-holing – so any suggestions from anyone, would be most welcome on how to get there . . .

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  13. The tip about looking in a local graveyard is excellent and has been filed for future reference 🙂

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  14. what a good (and spooky) idea about the graveyards/names. Think I’ll try that. Thanks for tip 🙂

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  15. Susan – great piece! I blogged on character names some time back and agree with the kind of approach you suggest. Names do tend to define people – for example, Hermione Condon, would not sound so interesting (with apologies to any Hermione Condons out there – and don’t tell me you have a sister names Hermione!)

    There’s a growing tendency these days to use names of cities and to go for alliteration (Brooklyn Beckham). One is enough without the other – what about Washington McCumber?

    Writers do tend to go for soft-sounding names for their goodies and harsh names for their baddies. You couldn’t, for example, believe that Cruella Deville, was the sweet, freckled girl next door!

    My personal favourites are the use of surnames as first names. What about McDonald Pearson? Or maybe it should be inverted to Pierce McDonald!

    Naming is endless fun and should be played with by writers more than it probably is.

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  16. I agree names are important. It’s always helpful to own a baby name book or two.

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  17. In The Art of Fielding Cad Harbach chose some very evocative names, and of course Charles Dickens was a master at choosing character names. As for me? I’m lucky to have an unusual surname, even though I always have to spell it twice . . .

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