Tuesday, January 08, 2008

What's in a Name?

While I was growing up I absolutely hated my first name. Since the only Helen I’d ever heard of was the actress Helen Hayes, the name always said to me “old lady.” Sweet, frail, gray-haired mum, that was me.

Admit it, that’s the same image that pops up for you, too. Look at that picture. Is that the quintessential Helen or what?

Eventually, I came to terms with the name, and now I actually like it. It’s different, simple, kinda pretty. I guess my folks did okay.

Some parents don’t do so good. I think about some of the names celebrities have given their kids and I alternate between cringing and laughing.

Calico (Admittedly pretty tame for Alice Cooper’s daughter.)

Apple Blythe Alison Martin (What do you expect from a mother named Gwyneth and a grandmother named Blythe?)

Fuschia (Sting – you’d think such wonderful poet/song writer could come up with something more lyrical.)

Hopper (Boy? Girl? Farm equipment? Sean Penn and Robin Wright)

Sage Moonblood and Seargeoh (Sylvester Stallone, who shouldn’t be allowed to name any more children.)

Kyd (Honestly, this one makes me chuckle - David Duchovny and Tea Leoni – figures.)

Brooklyn (David and Victoria Beckham, parents also of Romeo and Cruz - somebody please stop these two.)

Moon Unit Zappa (Guess who?)

But then there’s Suri, (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes). I love that name.

And Destry (Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw). I don’t know what the name means, but it conjures up all kinds of wonderful images for me.

Anyway, one of the first things I have to do when I start a new book (which I’m doing this week) is to figure out my characters’ names. It really messes me up if I have the wrong name for one of my people. So I search and search through my baby name books and the phone book and websites until I come up with what feels right. I think it pretty much comes down to a combination of stereotypes and nationality. But what I find interesting is that other writers pick names that I don't like. So our stereotypes must be fairly personalized.

What does Emily say to you? Elijah, Alexander, Grace? Wilbur? Yeah, that’s my grandpa’s name. I loved him, but the name always made me think of that talking horse sitcom … what was the name of that show?

According to one of the websites I visited during my search for names, the top five boys names of 2007 were Aidan, Braden, Kaden, ( I kid you not), Ethan, and Caleb. The top five girls names were Ava, Abigail, Cailyn, Madeline, and Isabella.

Could you imagine naming the kid in this picture Albert?

What I really what to know, though, is how important are character’s names in books to you? Can it end up meaning the difference between liking and not liking a story?

What about over used names. Do you have one that you’re sick of, one that if you see it again you’ll want to puke?

I apologize if I've offended any Alberts, Wilburs, or Moon Units.


Betina Krahn said...

I love Helen-- both the name and the person. Always thought it was very regal and noble sounding! And you're right about some of the clelbrity names being odd. But I guess they want a unique future for their offspring. . . and they're probably guaranteeing it with the name.

My mom was a 1st grade teacher who taught for 41 years. Talk about name prejudices! She knew a kid with every name imaginable and had a lot of them pegged. Naming my kids was difficult-- she sent me a list of names she had positive stereotypes about. . . and I ignored them all. I confess, I have a few prejudices myself, many of which involved too many Jennifers, Scotts and Sarahs and Chris's. But those names were so overused in the 70's that whatever prejudices I had about them are pretty much blown. There are so many around that they could be anybody these days!

Give me a good old fashioned "Duncan" or "Margaret." ::sniggle::
So why is my new heroine named Ecco?

Betina Krahn said...

Oh, and I LOVE the baby pic. . . makes me all gooey and grandmotherly inside. . . even if his name is Albert.

Samantha Hunter said...

I like the name Helen, too -- and I think you're becoming very trendy, with Helen Hunt, Helen Mirrin, etc.
Of course, there's always Helen of Troy. ;) Great beauties, those Helens.

I have two names now, Sam and my real name, and I have to admit, I don't feel like Sam is my pseud anymore, it's more like my "second name" and in many ways, I like it more than my real name, which is unusual, androgenous (huh...well, Sam is too, I suppose -- I never, seriously ever, feel like a "Samantha"), and prone to constant misspelling and weird looks.

I like basic names. Mike, Charles, Robert, Henry, etc, or and for girls names much like yours, Helen, Brigit, Rita, etc -- I love names like that.

I get a little done in by the super macho names in books, and I mean that as a writer, as well, since my eds kind of insist I use them -- when I've tried to float more "real" names in Blaze, I'm always asked to change them, though I'm hoping if I sell to Supers than I can have more realisitic names.

One of the best things ever was in Charlaine Harris's books when she named her vampires Eric, Bill, Pam -- I think she may have been the first one to do that? There's Tanya Huff's Henry, but which one was first? Loved it.


Keri Ford said...

Yep, I was thinking of Helen of Troy too. It always comes to mind first, and she must have been one heck of a beautiful girl since Paris choose a life with her over world domination. Not to mention that whole face who launched a thousand ship thing she had going on....

Wilbur is auto Mr. Ed thought relation thing like you. And same for me on finding the right name. If I find a name (thumb through books until one jumps out at me) and I have to change midstride for whatever reason I HAVE to wait until I finish the book...changing a characters name changes their personality when I'm writing.

Cindy Gerard said...

Helen Helen Bo Bellen Banana-panna bo bellen fee fi fo fellon. Heeeelen. :o)
Okay. Got that off my chest.
I love the name Helen - and like Betina, I love the person.
And I once read that the name Mac for a hero was a real turn on. Well, maybe it just turns me on.
As to naming characters, I have always be stunned at, how when I develop a main character, the name just seems to appear for me - and it always fits. So far - so good but I'm sure my luck will run out one of these days. On the other hand, I do extensive research on secondary character names. Go figure.

Helen Brenna said...

That makes sense, Betina, about celebrities wanting unique futures for their offspring. Nice way to put it. I wonder what those kids'll think.

Yeah, I remember the first time I read the Helen of Troy thing. I was flabbergasted. It did, I suppose, offset some of the old lady stuff.

Years ago, when my son was little, I was in a McD's play area and heard a mother call "Helen!" to her little 2 year old. Flabbergasted again.

Names do ebb and flow. I can't get over the variety of kid's names these days.

LOL, Cindy! I have a harder time on secondary character names too. I think because there are too many choices.

Mac, huh? Doesn't do it for me!

Michele Hauf said...

When I'm reading, the character's names have a little importance to me, but I can usually get over a strange one. As long as I can pronounce it. Some of those Scottish historicals have the most bizarre names with far too many vowels, and I just give up. I wish authors would put pronounciation guides at the beginning of their books.

I don't read futuristic books because for some reason the names in those always have a plethora of apostrophes. What is with that?

For my own characters, I'm in love with French names of course, and have the French section of my Melting Pot Book of Baby Names pretty scoured.

I love long, distinguished men's names: Sebastian, Francesco, Alexandre.

Right now my Irish hero is Colin, which I love and the heroine is Kru (a common name for male Thai warriors; but I just liked the look of it for a girl).

My own kids are Ashley (oh man, is that one overused. But I did pick it way back in '84 when it was very new) and Jesse. Simple, but fitting for both of them.

Playground Monitor said...

You forgot Dweezil. And Rumer, Scout and Tallulah.

I've always hated my name -- Marilyn. Mind you I was born in the 50's and the first thing you thought of when you heard Marilyn was "Monroe." I endured way too many MM jokes, and when you're a plain little brown-eyed girl with mousy-brown hair it's rough to share a name with the blonde bombshell.

I'm over that now (I hope *g*) but I still don't really like the name. It's pretty dated and I don't run into many people named Marilyn, except women my age or older. I did a little Googling once and Kim Novak's real name was Marilyn. So was Rhonda Fleming's. Guess they didn't like it either. *g*

I think a lot of people are going back to "old-fashioned" names. I met a small child named Stella recently. My granddaughter is Olivia (I immediately think Olivia deHaviland).

Marilyn (who wishes her mother had won and been able to name her Katherine) ;-)

MsHellion said...

I feel your pain. I'm 32--so I spent my childhood in the 80s with the name: Frances. You think Helen conjures pictures of cute old ladies knitting? Try having a name that is also the name of a BADGER who has a series of books about jam, bread, siblings, et al.

I tried to get rid of it when I was 7 and go by my middle name Marie--but I was bribed out of it with a little statue of a horse. (I was so horse mad in those days.)

Now I just shorten it to Fran; absolutely loathe Frannie from all the torturing when I was a teenager. Went to college and dubbed myself Miss Hellion and called it a day.

I *do* love the name Emily. I love names that start with M--I'm always naming or trying to name a character with an M. I love the name Benjamin...and I like two-syllable names with "ie" on the end sound. Emmie, Livie, Annie. I think the name Elizabeth is cool--though the nickname Lizzie would be cool.

MsHellion said...

Oh, I spend a lot of time figuring out the meanings of names. For instance--Helen means "light"--and other names like Helen are Eleanor/Elinor and Nell... I always thought it was a pretty name because it mean "light."

Frances means "Free" and my middle name means (in one of its incarnations): "Rebellious"--so it's not like I haven't lived up to my name. If you get saddled with such a name, you should at least live up to it.

Guy Davis said...

Those celebrity baby names are hilarious. If you're looking for names that are common or rare in a particular region, the Baby Name Map has name popularity statistics from around the world.

Kathleen Eagle said...

We have strong feelings about the names we associate names with people we know. Any time I've gotten a note from a reader who hated the hero or heroine's name, the explanation has always been like "I knew a so-and-so in 6th grade and she was so mean to me."

I love Helen. She was the heroine of my WHAT THE HEART KNOWS. She was also my grandmother. Helen Elizabeth. Good old-fashioned name. I've often used trendy names for charaters, maybe because we commited not to go trendy when naming our kids. We didn't really use nicknames, either. Elizabeth was Buffy when she was little--thanks to her older brother, who loved Buffy St Marie on Sesame Street--but only the Eagle clan is allowed to call her that.

One of my favorite character names was Sage Parker. Oh, and my grandfather's name was Hezikiah, and I actually used it for a hero, but you don't find out that Kiah is really Hezikiah until late in the book. I actually got a letter and baby photo from a reader who named her baby Kiah after getting the idea from my character.

Sometimes I start with a name and realize as the character develops that it doesn't fit. It's funny what a difference it makes when I make the change. I resist at first, but when the name is right, off you go.

Christie Ridgway said...

Those boys' names for 2007 are wild! I remember hearing complaints about the names of romance heroes and thinking...hey, you should check out the my kids' classroom rosters. My boys have somewhat unusual names, though easy to spell, they are both gender-unspecific. Middle names are Matthew and John, though, to keep that all clear.

As long as I can pronounce the name in my head, I'm pretty okay with it. But I confess, as a writer, sometimes having difficulty coming up with just the right =last= name. Current hero has the last name "Smith" because it really wasn't that important to me. He's really Noah though.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Oh, my grandfather hated his name and went by HK. But his good friends called him Hezzi. I wonder if he would have liked Kiah. In the book, of course, people assumed Kiah was Lakota, so the admission was a funny moment. Sage also had a funny story to tell about how he got his name, as I recall.

I didn't like my name growing up. I was Kathy--usually one of three in my class. I remember telling Mama that I was going to start spelling my name with a C. (I was about 10.) She said, "Go ahead, but it won't be your name." I had the family names--Mary (Mama) Kathleen (Daddy's Mama was Katherine). I was so jealous of my baby sister, who got to be Jill. I love that name. Hmm. I haven't used that one yet.

Kathleen Eagle said...

One more Oh, and...

I guess they called me Mary Kay for the first year or so. I'm glad that one didn't stick...

Michele Hauf said...

I like my name, but I hate that it is so often mispelled. I'm Michele with one 'l', and it seems that no one ever thinks that's how it should be spelled. But when I see it spelled with two 'ls' then it's like I'm not even looking at my name. Who is that chick? Oh, they spelled it wrong. Again.

Helen Brenna said...

Michele, you'd be surprised how many people want to put 2 l's in Helen.

Dweezil, I did forget that one, Marilyn, though I actually kind of like the names of Demi and Bruce's kids. I can see how your name would've been tough growing up during that time. Although I do like it!

Frances, oy, that's a really tough one, Ms Hellion! Although Frances McDormand, the sheriff of Fargo fame, did a good job on breathing new life into the name.

Thanks for the tip, Guy. There's a hot name for a hero!!

Kathy, your grandfather's name is amazing. My older sis's name is Mary Kay, but she must not have like it either and has gone by Mary forever.

Christie - the hero in my new book is a Noah too!!

lois greiman said...

Cute post, Helen. But you get no sympathy from me. Not with a name like Lois...the unname.

But...my children are talking about having children so we discuss names a lot. My current favorite is Windlyn. Incadu?? Not so much

Helen Brenna said...

Hey, you more than anyone should empathize, Lois, dearie!! But I hear ya.

Incadu? Where the heck does that come from?

Windlyn's growing on me.

Playground Monitor said...

One of my favorite characters is named Lois -- Lois Lane! She got Clark Kent AND Superman.

I wonder if you sister doesn't like the name Mary Kay because of the cosmetics company?

Betina Krahn said...

I once had to change my hero's name because my editor's mother's name was Lorainne and her nickname was "Rainey." The editor couldn't take my hero's name "Raine" seriously. We compromised and I dropped the final "e" making him Rain. I was devastated at the notion of changing it well after the book was finished, so she said she'd "live with it." Humph!

But I confess, the recent trend toward names with apostrophes in them leaves me cold. I do like using stereotypes and playing with double-meaning names for bad guys. Just the imp in me, I guess. And I can't be the only writer with that impulse: Charles Dickens was infamous for it. "Uriah Heap." I rest my case.

Ellie said...

Well, my given name is Eleanor and I had the same feeling...it was for old ladies. I was actually named after an aunt who was 45 when I was born. My Mom was 27, a slight age gap. But I've always gone by Ellie. At my first office job, the lead secretary tried to get me to go by Eleanor, said it sounded more mature and professional.

My mom's name was Helen, so I think it's a beautiful name, and not old at all, to me.

I saw some interesting names at one job I had. Really made me wonder about their parents... and they weren't celebrities.
Kermie Kermit
Major Major (and yes, he was a Major too)
Major Broccolli
Darthvader (I kid you not)

And a couple of celebrities that stick in my head... Jermajesty (Jermaine Jackson's offspring)
Tu (Rob Morrow's offspring) (Get it? Tu Morrow?)
Audio Science (Shannyn Sossamon's offspring)

Helen Brenna said...

Yeah, Marilyn, the cosmetics company probably does have something to do with disliking the name Mary Kay. I don't blame her at all.

Betina, having to change my hero's name due to and editor's personal issue would tick me off. I like Raine more than Rain.

Ellie is a beautiful name. And, wow, you've listed some doozies!!

flchen1 said...

Hi, Helen,

Helen's a lovely name! And in vogue again, it would seem :)

I have an unusual name (Fedora, same as the hat, although I wasn't named after that), and detested it growing up. I've become accustomed to it, and can appreciate it now.

Maybe because of my own experience, I love run-of-the-mill names with traditional spellings. Nothing too off-the-wall or funky for me. Our children have very "classic" names, and I don't know whether they'll grow up wanting instead to be the only "X" in their class instead.

(Michele, I completely sympathize--a name is someone's identity, and it's such a courtesy and sign of respect to make sure to get it right. I still remember a few Valentines I received as a child with my name misspelled--even then I thought, "Couldn't you even copy it off the list the teacher passed out??" Hmm... I have some weird long-lasting hang-ups, I see!

When I read, I prefer names that aren't too out of the ordinary, but I think the story makes it work or not, just as getting to know the person can make a name work (or not) for you. I've definitely raised eyebrows at some of my friends' choices for their children, but once you meet the little ones, in general you end up fitting the name to the lovely (or not) people they are.

BTW, Mshellion, I have to say that my family LOVES the Frances books, although I sympathize with your pain :( (And my husband's name is Francis, the boy version--he goes by Frank.)

Very fun post, Helen!

Helen Brenna said...

Fedora, is an unusual, but lovely name, flchen!

Kathleen said...

I had a student years back who named her firstborn Justin Case. No lie. Since Case was the middle name, I guess it didn't come up THAT often. And it's not as bad as Dweezil. Oh, and another student named his son Sioux and his daughter George. (His own little ode to Johnny Cash.)

What a fun post, Helen!

Helen Brenna said...

Justin Case. People think they're so clever. I always wonder if kids end up changing their names when they're adults.

Glad folks enjoyed the post!

flip said...

I love the name, Helen, myself. It reminds me of elegance. I really don't care for my name, Phyllis. Seriously, it is a name for someone's elderly maiden aunt. My father never liked his name, Ernest. Can you blame him for being angry at his parents for sticking him with Ernie.

So, of course, my children should have no complaints about the wonderful names that I gave them,
Katie Scarlett, Amber Rose, Shane Thomas and Judith Ann. My grandmother was disappointed with the name Judith, she thought my two older daughters had much better names. I love the name, Judith and I like the nickname Judy. Plus unlike Katie or Amber, you don't find many Judys or Judiths under the age of 25.

Helen Brenna said...

The name Phyllis has character, doesn't it?

The nickname thing drives some people crazy. I kinda always wanted a nickname, but there's not much you can do with Helen!

Bridget Locke said...

When I was a kid, I was called Kaiti. Only one I knew. Most were Jennifer's, Heather's, and Sarah's. Now, Kaitlin is an extremely popular name, but I have the distinct honor of being the oldest one I know of. :)

For boys names I like masculine, strong names like Duncan, Connor, Ian, (mostly Scottish or Irish...hmmm). For girls I like unique names like Ainsleigh, Shanleigh, Serena, etc.

Every time I start a new story, I scour my baby name book too. I like knowing the meaning & origin of the name. It helps me flesh out my characters.

Helen Brenna said...

Bridget, I'll be everyone probably spelled Kaiti wrong. But that's another post for another day!