What's in a (character's) name?
I am having an argument with one of my writing students and it has stemmed from one simple element — a minor character's name. My student has written a beautiful short story set in the 1960s. Her knowledge of the era is impressive for a twelve-year-old, and her story has a strong plot with crisp, clean sentences, but she has decided to name her main character's sister Madison and I am trying to explain to her why it just won't work.
"Madison is a great name, " I tell her. "It's just not realistic for the time period." I show her a list of the top 100 names of the 1960s. "See, the name Madison wasn't even considered back then. You're much better of using a name like Karen or Lisa."
She wrinkles her nose at my suggestion. "But I really want to keep Madison," she protests. "It's my little sister's name and I've always wanted to put it in a story."
I could definitely relate since I've been in her place numerous times, as I'm sure most of us writers have been. Thinking of character names can cause ridiculous amounts of frustration and anxiety. Many times, a name has popped into my name and it's all the motivation I need to begin a new story or idea, but the hard part is actually finding a place for it in my writing. Oddly enough, it's pretty similar to naming a child. Much like giving your offspring a good, solid name, it's also a big deal for your characters. They are the stars of your project, and as writers, we owe it to them to find a name that suits them.
Some things I tend to keep in mind when naming characters are: Will their name fit their personality? Their physical characteristics? Religious background? Occupation? (It's hard to imagine a stripper named Barb)
After considering these questions, if the name that I had in mind still fits the mental imagine of the character, then I use it, if not, it goes on the back burner for another project.
Oh, and with the whole idea of saving names for later, be careful in using your "backup names." One of my writer friends from graduate school gave me a little piece of fantastic advice regarding this. He had just finished reading a few chapters of my manuscript and informed me that four of my characters all had names that began with the letter "L". I hadn't even realized it, since I had simply chosen a bunch of names that I had liked, but never had used. "Your readers are going to get confused with all of those 'L' names," he told me. "In the future, print out a list of the alphabet and keep track of how many times you use a letter for a character's name." Brilliant!
My student eventually agreed with me to use the name Madison as a "back burner" name for another story, and we came up with the name Elizabeth, her sister's middle name, (and number #17 on the list of Most Popular names of the 1960s) for her character. Thank goodness, her story didn't take place in the 1890. I could have never convinced her to use the name Bertha (number #12 for that year.)