Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Writers, what's in a name?

Fiction writers, how do you decide what to name your characters?

The U. S. Social Security Administration has a nifty website showing the most popular baby names for boys and girls in the U.S. during each decade going back to the 1880s. (Other countries may have similar databases of their own--check with the government.)

Did you know that "Mary" was consistently the first or second most popular name for girl babies right up until the 1970s, when it was ousted in favor of "Jennifer" and "Amy"? And it wasn't just nudged off its perch. During the Disco Decade, "Mary" plummeted to #15 and has never regained its former glory. In the 2000s, the top girls' names were "Emily" and "Madison."

Boys' names have been generally more consistent and less subject to trends. "James," "Robert," and "John" pretty much jockeyed for position until the 1960s, when "Michael" blasted ahead and has remained king of the hill ever since.

Getting back to your writing . . . say that you're stumped for a character name. Your story is set in Chicago in the 1950s. If your character is twenty years old in 1955, that makes their birth year 1935. Check the database for names that were popular in the 1930s to get some ideas. "Robert" and "Mary" were the top picks that year--does "Bob" or "Robbie" suit your male character? For girls, other popular 1930s baby names were "Betty," "Barbara," and "Shirley."

Or maybe you don't want a popular name for your character. "Hilda" and "Daisy" were at the bottom of the 1930s list for girls, and "Jon" and Alex" trailed the pack for boys.

Of course you'd want to take other factors into consideration when naming your character. Does he belong to a particular ethnic group? Use his middle name instead of his first name? Go by a nickname? Did he have unusually creative parents? I remember reading a book when I was a child where the lead character was named "Kalahari," after the desert. Her parents were, I believe, archeologists. And there are also connotations to consider. "Elmer" brings to mind a different sort of person than "David."

No data is available yet for the 2010s, but in my (admittedly limited) experience, I predict names ending in "den"--Aden, Braden, Jaden, Caden, Hayden, etc.--will place high for both boys and girls. What do you think?

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