HALLIE EPHRON: Whenever I speak at an event, I like to go around ahead of time and meet the (mostly) ladies in the audience. I always enjoy learning their first names, because your given name is such an indicator of your generation.
Women like me, born in the 40’s and early ‘50s, are usually Nancy or Carol or Barbara or Patricia or Linda or Donna. Names no one still uses. Our mothers had names like Mary or Helen or Dorothy or Ruth.
Gen-Xers (’65-80) have longer names like Jennifer or Melissa or Heather or Angela or Deborah. We must have been taking ourselves very seriously during those years.
Millenials (’81-2000) are a bit on the literary side: Emily, Ashley, Sarah, or Samantha.
While the little girls at my granddaughter’s day care have names that tend toward short and light: Sophie, Emma, Olivia, Zoe, or Lily.
When you name your characters, do you pay attention to the generation they’re in and the names that were popular or unpopular back then?
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Absolutely. I use the Social Security Names Database to start with - you can sort by individual year, gender, even by the state.
Names go in and out of fashion, and we all absorb that, even if we're not consciously aware of it. When our expectations of what a person's name "should" be are challenged, it's jarring. Youngest has a 16-year-old friend named Doris. That's right, a teen-age Doris. She's constantly explaining she was named after a great-grandmother.If you're reading, the "wrong" names can take you out of the story fast. As a writing instructor at Stone Coast, I once read a short story by a student about a group of seventh graders - 11-year-olds. He had given the kids names like Joey and Jimmy and Bobby. I thought the story was set in the 1950s or early 60s, but no, it was contemporary. (The fact I couldn't tell when it was taking place was another issue entirely.) Those were the boy-names of his youth, and he had no idea contemporary 11-year-olds are named Matthew, Nicholas and Noah (another social change? Very few kids use diminutives of their names today. Matthew is almost never Matt or Matty.)
Getting the generational names right is an easy way to let your reader know something about the character. Getting them wrong is an easy way to have your reader corner your book!
INGRID THOFT: I absolutely pay attention to names when creating characters. I consider the time period, their ethnicity, where they live, and their socio-economic status. When I teach writing, I also remind people that there were no Jadens and Madisons in 1910, at least not as first names. As Hallie and Julia noted, a quick search on the Internet will provide you with names appropriate to any given time period.
It’s also helpful to say names out loud and listen to how they sound. Do they roll off the tongue or are they tongue twisters? I find it disruptive as a reader when a name is so hard to pronounce that it interrupts the flow.
And all of the names in the story have to work together; if Mary is your victim and her best friend is Marion, you’d better crack open that baby naming book. Another consideration? I can’t name a character the same name as someone important in my life. Characters will never share names with my husband, mom, sisters, or best friends. But the dim clerk at the post office or the rude waiter? I might just get my revenge on the page.
RHYS BOWEN: Oh Ingrid, I do the same! If someone has been rude to me they are going to show up as an unpleasant person (or a dead body) in my book. I made my old headmistress (who was truly horrible and thought a lot of herself) into the butler in one book. I loved that she had to wait on everybody.
Since I write historical novels I have to be very aware not only of names of the time but of the class. Servants were often flower names: Daisy, Rose,Violet. Interestingly enough Julian Fellowes called the Maggie Smith character Lady Violet, which has always jarred with me.
Upper class women were either Biblical or Classical: Elizabeth, Mary, Jane were all fine but also Diana, Clarissa, Veronica etc. And the names were never shortened. Instead they were given silly nicknames: Bunch, Toffy, Sqiggly etc. There are still members of my husband's family with those silly nicknames although not among the younger generation.
My big problem comes when I donate a character name to a charity auction. I always dread what I'm going to do if a Madison or Brittney win. How do I fit them into a historical novel? I did once find myself with a Jensen, Reagan and Danika. I had to make them American girls who were visiting Mrs. Simpson!
JENN McKINLAY: We Jennifers owned the seventies and eighties!!! I never had a class where there weren't at least two other Jen/Jenny/Jennifers in the room. My friends in high school dubbed me "Nnifer" to separate me from the pack. One of those friends is the drummer for the Doobie Bros now, and when we reconnected and he said, "Nnifer!", it was like the decades vanished. Weird.
As for my characters, I try to be aware of age appropriate trends without being a slave to them. Sometimes a character just needs an unusual name that they can make all their own.
Rhys, I love the family nicknames, and I wish they were more common. My mother had an Uncle Happy and I always thought that was the greatest name.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: Jenn, my daughter was born in '83 and there were still lots of Jennifers. And Lindseys, and Kristins, and Abbys, and Emilys. And Katies, of course, as she is one of them, but I had no idea I was being trendy when I named her Katharine.
And so my mom also said when she named me Deborah... (I'm still waiting for Deborah, Barbara, Nancy, Linda, Carol, and Diane to come back.) Now, my daughter's friends are naming their baby girls things like Victoria, Vivien, and Lillian. Lillian was my grandmother's name and I did put it in the pool for Wren:-)
I've always tried to use names that were both generationally and culturally appropriate names for my characters. I still have my Guinness book of baby names from before we could look things up on the Internet. But, as Rhys mentioned, the charity naming thing can be murder. The hardest I've ever had was a dog, an English mastiff, named Big Mo. I could not figure out how to use this dog in the book. But in the end he was one of my favorite characters.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Well, yeah, you're talking to the girl who was Harriet in a class of Debbies and Lindas. We had TWO Susan Palmers, a Sue White and a Sue Marling and a Sue Something who got everyone to call her Cricket. I really wanted to be Cricket or Tammy or Gidget. But no. Harriet. And remember there was no cool Harriet the Spy back then, and I didn't know Harriet Vane. There was only Ozzie and Harriet. I would have killed to be Donna. (Now Harriet is apparently cool again.)
Anyway. Character names, yes, I'm very careful. And wow, when they don't work, they don't work. In my new book there was a Charleen, but she would not be Charleen. I couldn't get her to talk. I eventually realized it was her age group was incorrect--and, because of where she was born, that would not have been her name. When I made her Ashlyn--boom. She started living. So funny.
And Jenn, have you ever seen this cartoon? It is one of my favorites of all time.
LUCY BURDETTE: My older sister was a Sue, but I was supposed to be a boy so they called me Roberta, after my father. I NEVER met another Roberta growing up, and it's still rather rare, though there is a Facebook page called "Is your name Roberta?" There are only 87 of us across all of Facebook! You can see why I really enjoy being "Lucy!"As for characters, I can't remember worrying too much about which decade a name belongs in. Except for Hayley Snow. I wanted her to be named after Hayley Mills because her mother is such a fan. The timing doesn't quite work but so far no one has complained!
HALLIE: Were you, like me, the only one with your name in school, or were you one of a slew (of Sues)... and did that leave you permanently shaped, or warped, or otherwise bent??