So I’m reading another YA paranormal romance. I’m frequently disappointed by these, mostly for reasons that fall under the “romantic interest is a jerk” and/or “protagonist is a dopey pushover” categories, but I am convinced that these problems are not inherent to the genre. Just, you know, frequent pitfalls. Plus, this one is an Alice in Wonderland retelling, and I am a sucker for some Alice in Wonderland, y’all.
However, in this book – I’ll go ahead and tell you that it is Splintered by A. G. Howard, since you could probably figure it out – I’ve encountered a completely unrelated issue. It’s one that I’ve seen before in different books of various genres. It is the saddling of characters who are supposed to be romantic/sexy/attractive with names that are none of the above.
Is it shallow that I have so much trouble taking seriously our protagonist’s attraction to a guy named Jeb? JEB, you guys. His name is JEBEDIAH. I’m fairly confident in saying that no name that ends with “diah” is going to be loaded with sex appeal. As to the question “is it shallow,” quite possibly. But I’m not the only one who has this problem.
Years ago, I was at a writers’ conference in which a romance author on one of the panels told a story. Some time before, she had had another romance novel in the works, and was auctioning off the right to name its male lead. The proceeds would go to charity. Here is where the awkward starts: the winner of the auction was her father. Here is where the awkward gets worse: he wanted to name the male lead after himself. Here is where the author put her foot down: his name was Melvin.
Because, unfair as it might be to the Melvins of the world, you cannot, in modern-day America, slap that name on a character who is supposed to be swoonworthy. Hey, fiction doesn’t always mirror real life, and it doesn’t have to. Romance authors rarely give their male leads bad teeth, or have them catch icky diseases, even those those things happen in reality. There are things that writers have reason to want to avoid.
The names that do and don’t work for a sexy character (or a scary character, or a cute character, etc.) vary from person to person and era to era. Some names may work or not work for a specific reader for reasons that have to do with that reader’s experiences. (“Jebediah” might just be a problem for me because I grew up in a small town in the South and didn’t really like the redneck culture I often encountered. To me, “Jeb” is a guy in dirty overalls who takes potshots at ‘possums.) Other names, however, have pretty broadly-held associations, at least for a given time period or a given culture. Which brings us to LIST TIME!
- Just Getting Older with Age – A name that was very popular a generation or two ago but isn’t now will feel like an “old” name – a “mom” name or a “grandparent” name – and probably not be sexy. Think Doris, Mildred, Clarence, or Lloyd, all common baby names in the 1920s. When Jane Eyre came out (slight spoilers maybe, but you’ve had since 1847 to read it), “Bertha” was a sexy foreign name. How many sexy Berthas do you read about now?
- Nobody Names Their Daughter Jezebel – Some names are strongly associated with specific people. Even if your male lead is German, you might think twice about naming him Adolf. The associations don’t necessarily even have to be negative. I once read a thriller in which the heroine’s supposedly sexy tough-guy husband was named Mickey. I just . . . Mickey is a mouse. He’s a mouse.
- “Bond. Jimmy Bond.” – Doesn’t have the same ring, does it? Sometimes it’s not the name itself, but what the character goes by. I can easily see a Robert as a romantic interest, but Bob? Not so much. And it’s not just about whether a name is attractive or not: there are other implications. If you want to write someone snooty, would he go by Lawrence or Larry? Augustin or Gus? What if you want to write someone very laid-back and casual?
I don’t intend this post to be mean! I feel the pain of real-life people who have these names. I myself have a first name that peaked in popularity between 1950 and 1955, over thirty years before I was born, so it always felt like a name for people my mom’s age. That’s part of why I go by an unrelated nickname. If I were writing a book set in the present, with a character my age, I probably wouldn’t give her a name like mine unless it was a plot point. Certainly my name does not evoke a “twentysomething” image, any more than Melvin evokes a “smoldering hottie” image.
You can, of course, give a character a contradictory name if you mean to play around with expectations or otherwise make a point with it. (See “plot point” in the paragraph above.) Maybe it’s an old family name. Maybe your character hates it – or loves it. Maybe she goes by something else, and her real name is an embarrassing secret.
Or maybe you just want to play it for laughs. I must take this opportunity to recommend the awesome Dickens-spoof radio series “Bleak Expectations,” which includes such wonderful names as Mr. Skinflint Parsimonius (“who was, ironically, the most generous of men”) and Mr. Gently Benevolent (“who was, ironically, a complete bastard”).
None of this is to say that real people can’t be sexy or silly or serious or anything else regardless of their names. It’s just one of the many things to consider when you’re putting together a fictional character. Names are neat! There’s so much you can do with them! They can really pull their weight, making readers assume or feel things about a character the moment she’s introduced. Just make sure you aren’t giving her a name that pulls its weight in the opposite direction of what you intend.
Favorite/least favorite names, fictional or otherwise? Other thoughts?