Monday, March 8, 2010

What's in a Name, Rose?

Is this what it’s like to be a Mary? Or an Emily? Or a Dylan? Good grief, I’m surrounded by Kristens these days.

At my daughter’s preschool there are no less than 3 women with the name Kristen, and that’s just for my daughter’s class alone. So that’s 3 out of 16 moms by the name of Kristen. And as if that weren’t bad enough, there are all these famous Kristens bouncing around nowadays: Kristen Stewart, Kristen Bell, Kristin Chenoweth, Kristen Wiig. Oh, and of course my sister-in-law is named Kristin too. I’ll let that one go because she got to the name first; she was born a day before me.

There was a time when I was the ONLY Kristen for miles around. People found it to be such an exotic name, they just shortened it to Kris because they couldn’t get their mouths to form into the “Kris” and the “ten” and put them together. I mean, it was sad. It’s not like there was anything tricky in there, like a trilled R or something with an umlaut over it. But that was my reality as a kid.

But now, geez, forget exotic. It’s like a Kristen bomb went off, and I can’t help but feel a little deflated. Admittedly, I had a good run, but now I think I’m … wait, don’t say it!


OK, I’m very anti-trend, but I think this itself may be a trend. A lot of the celebrity baby-naming nonsense is borne of the same drive to be un-run-of-the-mill. But truly, I think we can all recognize that there is such a thing as TOO original. This is not a goldfish you’re naming here, OK? It’s a person. A person who’s going to have to look at Diogenes Angus Lowenstein on his driver’s license one day.

Of course, there’s potentially a lot of fun to be had with celebrities as a result. You know what my husband and I briefly thought about naming our youngest daughter? Apple. Yeah. So then there’d be two Apple Martins in the world. Wouldn’t that just tick Gwyneth right off?

I got thinking about this name thing because I’ve seen several literary agents tweeting about popular names writers are giving to their main characters, and these names are not necessarily your names of long-standing appeal, like William or Katie. Each of them is what I would call “reasonably uncommon” or perhaps maybe “deliberately unusual.” Names like Austin or Peyton or Izzy (for a girl or boy). In other words, we authors are trying to be original. It’s just that we’re failing.

How does this happen? Each of us is trying to come up with a name for our main character that is not overused, but somehow we’re all independently coming to the same conclusions. There’s something to be said for the collective unconscious, I suppose, but honestly, I’m thinking that the urge toward originality is, in fact, the problem. A widespread urge toward originality ends up yielding a trend, which is, of course, the opposite of originality. Which then forces us to go farther afield to be original. Let’s face it, the only way to be truly original is to create a name that no one else wants to use. Like Chrysler or Waffle or Kevlar. Is that what we really want to accomplish? The pages of literature filled with silly and unappealing – but original – character names?

The reason this is important is that we have an important duty to perform as writers, and we potentially yield great societal influence. Books and movies are often the starting points for name trends after all. That name you’ve picked for your zombie love interest? He might just become the first in a national wave of Otises.

You’ve no doubt heard about the most famous example of this, that the name Madison came from the movie “Splash.” The name did not exist at all as a first name – and certainly it wasn’t used as a girl’s first name – until Darryl Hannah’s mermaid needed a more easily pronounced human name and happened to be standing on the corner of Madison Avenue at that point in the movie. Thank God she wasn’t standing on the Major Deegan Expressway at the time or else our elementary schools would be filled with Majors and Deegans right about now.

There must be a way around this, right? Maybe we can agree to start choosing names that are not super common but neither are they like three-legged unicorns. Maybe this is the way to short-circuit the urge toward ultra-originality.

I’ll get the ball rolling by throwing a few names out there as suggestions for main character names. I’ll start with the name Bobby. When was the last time you met a kid named Bobby? Seriously. The last kid named Bobby was probably your dad. It would be totally unusual in 2010.

Here are a few more to consider: Dave, Roger, Dennis, Carol, Donna, Rosemarie, Mary Ellen, Betsy, Kevin, Nancy, Denise, Amy, Carl. OK, if you want to get all tricky, feel free to use the boys’ names for the girls and vice versa.

I’d suggest Kristen but, you know, that name is so played out.

How do you pick your characters’ names? Phone books? Baby name books? Do you use unusual spellings of common names? I’d love to hear your methods and madness.