baby names, Benedict Cumberbatch, Janet Dailey, Liam Neeson, men's names, romance fiction, romantic heroes, sexy names, T. S. Eliot, The Naming of Cats, writing
According to T. S. Eliot, the naming of cats is a difficult matter. So is naming the protagonists of one’s fiction–especially one’s romantic fiction. I can’t just pick the names of my heroes out of a hat. They have to be names that appeal to me, and with luck, to my readers. The problem is that name preferences are very personal. For example, as a little girl, I knew a boy named Jason. I didn’t like Jason and for all I know, he didn’t like me. Now, whenever I hear the name Jason, I inevitably think of that kid. (The example of the Greek hero Jason, who was something of a cad, only reinforces my low opinion.)
No offense to all the lovely Jasons of the world, but I will not be using your name. Likewise, the name of my nascent hero cannot be that of someone close to me, a family member or friend. That would feel completely wrong, as though I was somehow writing about that person.
What to do? I happen to have a copy of a how-to book for romantic fiction authors, pragmatically entitled How To Write a Romance And Get It Published. Although I have no plans to publish my stories in the traditional way, I sometimes dip into this book for laughs. According to the chapter on names, romance author Janet Dailey was a past master at supplying her heroes with sexy, appealing names–and she never repeated the same name twice, despite having written hundreds of books. Some examples:
Bay, Chance, Cody, Colter, Deke, Dirk, Flint, Jace, Jett, Jock, Judd, Linc, Race, Ryder, Ruell, Shad, Travis, Zane.
Apparently, romantic heroes must have names of one or (at the most) two syllables. No fussy multisyllabic Benjamins, Theodores, or Fredericks allowed. I would never dream of using any of Dailey’s names. To me, most of them sound highly risible, like the pseudonyms Chippendale dancers might use while on the job. (Again, my apologies to any Jaces or Colters out there. You can’t help it if your mother had bad taste.) Some of these names are ones I recognize as having recently been fashionable for babies in the US. There is a mysterious process by which parents all over the country hit on a name they think is unique and interesting– and then their kid arrives in kindergarten to find ten other Codys or Ryders. Others pick the latest fashionable name in the hope that their child will “fit in.” According to Babycenter.com, the top US male names for 2014, in order of popularity, are these:
Liam, Noah, Ethan, Mason, Logan, Jacob, Lucas, Jackson, Aiden, Jack.
We seem to have moved away from the fake cowboy esthetic towards a world in which Liam Neeson and biblical patriarchs are the highest exemplars of masculinity. (Actually, that works for me.)
The list also includes Mason, Logan and Jackson. Surnames used as given names are not quite as appealing to me, though the practice has a long history. Especially in the American South, people believe that it sounds aristocratic. Going to college in Georgia, I encountered any number of Porters, Hunters, and Carters. There is a certain etymological irony to this, given that surnames like Porter and Carter were originally those of menial laborers. Another interesting quirk of the South is the (now mostly faded) popularity of the names Homer and Vergil.
When I began to write, I had a small store of men’s names on which to draw, names I had always liked. For example, James was my favorite male name, so it became the name of my first hero. I flagrantly violated the rules of How To Write A Romance, which stipulate that ordinary, garden-variety male names are to be avoided. Names such as Bob, Rick, Steve, Bill, and Paul are only used for the hero’s antagonist. They are the creeps and jerks of the romantic genre.
I remember reading another book for aspiring authors, which advised that we select names with certain connotations. In particular, the hero’s name (given or surname) ought to sound something like these:
Damon, Damien, Devin, Devlin, Deveril
Apparently a man whose name evokes the words “Demon” or “Devil” is supposed to be sexy. Some romance heroes are actually named Devil (thanks, Mom!) and Lucifer. Also highly favored are names beginning with the letter R:
Rafe, Rolfe, Roarke, Rayne, Rule, Rush
I’m not sure what the special connotation of the “R” sound is. It is thought to be masculine and powerful. Maybe there’s some connection with the Indo-European root word for “king” which gives us Latin rex. The Greek name meaning king, Basil, is not as sexy… though I am very fond of John Cleese’s rage-driven Basil from Fawlty Towers.
Finally, an unscientific analysis of this list of hundreds of romance hero names yields the conclusion that the most popular names of all are Adam and Jake, followed by Jack and Nick. They may be clichés, but I like them much better than silly names like Falcon, Jazz or (heaven forbid) Rance.
All of which leads me to the list of names I gave my (contemporary) heroes:
Theo West (full name Theophilus Clarence West)
Max (Maxentius) Desmond
Nick (Nicholas) Flynn
What does this list say about me? The names are mostly ordinary ones, except for Theophilus and Maxentius. (In my story, when Theo is asked whether he lives under an alias, he dryly observes that Theophilus and Clarence are his real names, because “no one would pick those for himself.”) I enjoy a mellifluous, multisyllabic name now and then, especially if it has a Classical origin. One of my all-time favorite names is James Tiberius Kirk. These fancy names are like T. S. Eliot’s “particular, peculiar” cat names which are not used every day, but only for special occasions– like Munkustrap, Quaxo, and Coricopat.
There is a very Anglo orientation in this list. Not that I wouldn’t like to write about men named Enzo, Javier, Gerhard (whose name means “firm spear”), or Jean-Pierre, but I don’t feel I have the cultural knowledge to do so successfully (to say nothing of writing about men of cultures even further afield). James Whelan and Rúairí Lafferty are Irishmen, which required plenty of research on my part… Rúairí (“Rory”) bears what would be considered a “difficult” ethnic name in the US. Indeed, I had a terrible time spelling it consistently throughout my story. It means “red-haired king” and includes the famous Indo-European root.
There are cultural variations in how certain names are perceived. For example, in the US, “Nigel” and “Simon” are pebble-magnets, whereas people in the UK gladly bestow these names on their young. “Abner” is an old-fashioned, uncool name here, but it becomes sexy as “Avner,” the name of Eric Bana’s tortured Israeli Mossad agent in Munich.
With a new story, I have to get used to the name. When I first settled on the name Hugh, I wasn’t too sure about it. But as the character developed, and I pictured him in my mind, I grew very fond of his name, and began to think that no other would have fit him so well. This is a process readers experience too, if the story is well-written. I would love to read a story about a guy with an uncool or dorky name who turns out to be incredibly sexy. Anyone for Chester, Irving, or (my sentimental favorite) Durwood? Or how about a really dorky name like, say, “Benedict Cumberbatch”?
Absolutely fascinating – best post of the week! Well, of the ones I’ve read 😉
You won’t find many Nigels under the age of 55 in the UK, btw.
Am hoping you’ll write one on female heroines’ names… Scarlett O’Hara’still rules, right?! 😉
Female heroine … doh! Tautologically challenged, I am…
Many thanks! I’ll have to give some thought to the heroines. There is a similar tendency to give them silly stripper names. My own pattern matches what I do with the males–mostly familiar names, with the occasional Classical allusion!
Interesting about Nigel dying out as a popular name. I gave a secondary character that name because I thought it was charming. But he was a comic character more than a romantic one.
Nigel is totally fine for a comic character 😉 Other names that are (in the UK at least) blighted with middle-aged fuddy duddy connotations are Norman, Colin and Graham.
Same thing here with Norman. Very few Americans name a son Colin–it’s another veddy veddy English name. Graham is also rare, but I like it, probably because of the combined charms of Graham Chapman and Graham Nash.
Bavaria still has lots of Latin-based male names that are not found in the rest of Germany, e.g. Korbinian (from Latin corvus-raven), Bartholomäus, Ignatius, August(in), Florian, Fabian…
I love these names. I have noticed also that in Holland, Cornelius is still a popular name.
Reticent Mental Property said:
HA! Pebble-magnets! The name is important, yes, though sometimes a character grows into his name as his actions/choices are revealed. But most are easily accepted if some part of the story conveys the full name or some detail about it. Have you tried shouting possible names across a ravine to see how they sound? -Ret
LOL, no, but I’ve tried pronouncing them aloud. The ravine technique is worth a try! I like the idea of a character growing into his name…
Oh! Faulty Towers! The Spanish waiter! Hahahaha! About T.S.Eliot and the Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats I saw in Waterstones in Newcastle a gorgeous edition, a copy of the original manuscript with Eliot’s notes. I wonder why I have not bought it… maybe because I bought three paperbacks at the same price?
OMG that Dailey’s list of names is simply horrible…
In your character’s list you have not mentioned my favourite name “Laryngeal Spasm Karpathy” 😀 He’s not the hero of the story, though
Ha ha. Glad you liked Karpathy. I can take credit only for the laryngeal spasm part, since Karpathy appears as a character in “My Fair Lady.” And maybe even in Pygmalion too–I’ll have to check. I think his first name was Zoltan.
Yes, I love Manuel the waiter in Fawlty Towers, too! And I’d love to see the manuscript of Old Possum’s Book.
Colter, Jace? Snortworthy. Great post and Basil…he, he, he….my dad bears a striking resemblance to him.
Does he really? Awww, that is so sweet, and funny. John Cleese is an all-time favorite of mine. I thought he was great in “A Fish Called Wanda.” I also love Michael Palin!
“All can write autographs, but few paragraphs, for we are mostly no more than names.”
Had to google it! If one is only a name, it’s not bad to be known as Benjamin. Or Emily. Good luck tonight if you’re where I think you are…
I share your bafflement at the recommendation that a hero’s name should resemble Demon, Devil, or Lucifer. If I ever started reading a novel with a hero named Damon Lucifer, I’d spend the entire book waiting for a twist ending in which he turns out to be the villain.
Vicar, I think that the demonic male (in the Gothic sense) holds a certain sexual fascination. Witness the feverish female interest in vampires. But given that proper romance novels always end with marriage, it all becomes a bit silly. I don’t think Mephistopheles would make good husband material.
Good points. And if someone does wind up marrying Mephistopheles, she’d better read the fine print before signing what he claims is the marriage license.
LOL, you’ve got that right!
Ah, Linnet, you saved the best and my favorite goofy name for last–but the things that have been made out of that handsome hunk’s handle … whew!
I adore the process of name selection. It’s one of my favorite exercises when writing fiction. I’ve spent gobs of time in finding names that fit character and suggest a hint of motivation. It’s supremely important.
This was a terrific post–definitely one of my favorites of yours.
Go, Faulty Towers!
Many thanks! I enjoy looking for names too. That process of finding a name and seeing the character and name slowly meld together–it’s very satisfying.
is F T still on teevee sumwear?
I love your post 😉 I enjoy looking for names too and I have to say that I make list of name (in case of…stories…^^).
Well, talking about names, here is the list of the French top 2014 for male & female names http://www.prenoms.com/edito-prenoms/tendances-prenoms/le-top-des-prenoms-2014-m218016.html.
Very interesting! I see that both Louis and Louise are popular names in France, a legacy of royalty. I have one student named Louis, but it’s very difficult to find a Louise!
One of my very best friend is a “Louise” but it means nothing as she was born in Cameroon (her second name is Herminie I guess – and she hates that name! ^^).
From the late 10 years, we have a lot of: Theo, Matheo, Enzo, Mathis, Rayan (pronounced : Ryan ^^), Yanis, Dylan, Leo, for boys;
Chloe, Lea, Mathilde, Manon, Maeva, Camille, Lucie, Oceane (girls).
I love the name Theo and also Enzo. Surprising that Dylan is such a popular name. Is it due to the singer Bob Dylan? Oceane is one I have never heard for girls, but very beautiful!
Lots of Theo and Enzo (kids born circa 1997 /2003…)!
About Dylan: it’s much simple than that …it comes from
“Beverly hills 90210” 🙂 We had some Brenda and few Brandon, too but it sounds a bit weird in French…
Océane : named after the word “ocean” – a bit like “alizé” (or alizée” or “alyzé”) : ‘trade wind’.http://www.babynamespedia.com/meaning/Aliz_0_eacute_1_
btw, Alyzé (Aly) is the name of my daughter 🙂
Alyzé is lovely and gives a good nickname too (Aly!) I had to laugh about Dylan. I guess that show was very popular in France! I don’t know what ever happened to the guy who played him. Maybe he moved to Paris 🙂
About names from shows, I remember a little girl called “Phoebe ” named after the character in “Friends” 🙂
Unfortunately, her mum forgot that teachers could not read “Pheebee” and said something really strange (i’m afraid it’s a so hard to write it properly + or – “pheubeu” – poor girl….). Her brother ‘s name was Eliot (I don’t know why….) but no Ross, Chandler, etc..:)
That’s funny! Those characters all had relatively unusual names. I don’t know anyone named Phoebe or Chandler or Ross.
You know, I think that’s a cultural point of view: “oh, in this american show ….blablabla…surely it’s a usual name ”
As if we had a lot of : Louis, Charles, Jean-Pierre (not anymore, that’s my parents’ generation ^^), Jean-whatever…, etc, etc…
Maybe I should write a post about French names…? (a little post, I mean), this could be a good idea.
I would love to read about which French names are old fashioned, which are current among adults, and which are the new names for babies.
I love the old names like Jean-Pierre!
You gave me the idea. I’ll try to do my best …(must write in French/English)
Actually, I wrote “Jean -Pierre” because it’s my uncle’s and dad’s names 😉 .
interesting, not only the thought you put into this, but THE PROCESS, what with assorted (heh: sordid) associations …
Indeed. Some names inspire the thoughts in a certain creative direction 🙂
Love this! Another award nomination for you, Linnet – “Leibster”. Take a hop over to my blog and answer the same questions I’ve answered http://www.robingott.com 🙂
Many thanks, Robb!
Enjoyed reading this a second time, Linnet. Worthy as ever. And speaking of Hughs. I just watched The Rewrite with Hugh Grant. He wears his name well, and although that fella seems to only be capable of playing one type, he does do the type justice. It was a fine enough diversion for the evening. (now, onto the hunt to find a film with Hugh Darcy in it … sigh)
You nailed it with Hugh Grant! That is so true.