For example, in China, naming schemes often employ a generation name. That means every child in a given family’s generation shares an identical character when the name is written in Chinese characters. But English is taught in China's secondary schools, so many Chinese teenagers acquire English names, which they may keep and use. This sometimes leads to teens choosing English names like Chlorophyll, Candy, Devil or Whale. Periodic fad names like Aoyun ("Olympics") also appear.
In England, babies traditionally were named after relatives of both parents in a fascinating pattern that was popular in England from 1700 to 1875. This naming pattern definitely influenced my choices for character names in the JEM books. Here's how it worked:
The first son was named after the father's father
The second son was named after the mother's father
The third son was named after the father
The fourth son was named after the father's eldest brother
The first daughter after the mother's mother
The second daughter after the father's mother
The third daughter after the mother
The fourth daughter after the mother's eldest sister
Going by these rules, in the JEM books, Margery’s eldest sister, Nessa, was named for Margery’s father’s mother. But if you’ve read the JEM books, you know that Margery’s grandmother is named Kestrel. What’s up with that? Then, as now, people call themselves what they wish to be called; in this case, Granny Kestrel chose to honor a bird with which she shares a magical bond.
But Granny couldn't have done that in Malaysia, where the names of all animals, fruits and vegetables are banned.
Other countries have naming rules too. New Zealand bans names that might offend a reasonable person, including King, Major, Knight, Prince, and Princess, although other names have been allowed in the country, including Number 16 Bus Shelter and Violence. In New Zealand’s defense, a 9-year-old girl named Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii was allowed to change her name, and parents who tried to name their children 4Real, Fish and Chips (twins), Yeah Detroit, Keenan Got Lucy and Sex Fruit were turned down.
In Saudi Arabia, forget about naming your child anything that offends religious sensibilities, is affiliated with royalty, or is of non-Arabic or non-Islamic origin. Morocco is a tad more lenient, allowing you to pick a name not on the approved list if you pay a fee, although Moroccan dads living outside the country have to be careful: babies given a name not on the approved list may have trouble entering the country to visit their relatives.
Germany and Japan have naming rules, too. In Germany, you can’t use a last name as a first name. German law dictates that first names must be gender-specific, may not be a trademark, and cannot endanger the child. Italy won't let a parent bestow an embarrassing name.
Even in the freewheeling United States, some rules apply. Many states ban obscene names or limit the number of characters in a name because of the limitations of record-keeping software. Some states ban the use of numerals or pictograms. "Black" sounding names have been shown to minimize the likelihood that a job candidate will be interviewed, but from the beginning, black Americans have had unique names, according to Salon's David Zax, who writes, "the folklorist Newbell Niles Puckett turned up thousands of such names culling records from 1619 to the mid-1940s, names like Electa, Valantine and Zebedee." The practice of choosing a unique name for a black child skyrocketed after the 1960s, Zax says, when Black Pride and Islam began to influence parents' choices—but creating unique names doesn't happen in Iceland.
Iceland has strict rules; for a story set there, I spent half my research time hunting appropriate names for the characters. Why? Because Iceland doesn’t use family surnames. A spouse cannot take his or her spouse’s name upon marriage. If the couple produces a child, they must choose a given name from a limited list.
It works like this: The last name of a male Icelander usually ends in the suffix -son (“son”) and that of a female Icelander in -dóttir (“daughter”). So a boy and girl in the same nuclear family won’t share the same last name. When it comes to first names, Icelanders often don’t name a child for its first three months so the parents can get to know the child (before it is named, a child is called stúlka, “girl,” or strákur, “boy”). When it’s time to pick a name, the parents have to stick to a list of legal first and middle names, none of which contain the letter “C,” which isn’t in the Icelandic alphabet—sorry, Charlie. Currently there are about 1,712 male names and 1,853 female given names on the list. If you choose a name that isn’t on the list, your child will have problems, like being denied a passport.
This summer, online magazine Parent Society listed some of the more unusual baby names out there, but for names like “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116,” go here. The article doesn’t explain why parents would do that to their own flesh and blood.
For writers, the naming rules of the countries in which our stories are set should figure in when we name our characters, but we also want to embed meaning into their names, right? So, do you name your female romantic interest the name you wish you had been given? Do you name your action hero something short and dashing? How about last names? How do you decide?
One author who is good at crafting names is Nora Roberts. In THE SEARCH, the hero is Simon Doyle [Simon=sigh man, which is what he does because he keeps getting yanked into doing things he doesn’t want to do]. The heroine is Fiona “Fee” Bristow [Bristow=bristle, which is what she’s about, at least initially]. The villain’s name is the most perfect of all, but if you don’t want to know it, don’t click here because I don't want to spoil it for you. It could be I’m reading into Roberts’s choices, but I don’t think so. Roberts is an intelligent, successful writer; she knows that names are important. So do most writers. (Tangent: You can answer ten short questions to find out which Nora Roberts character you “are” here. Me? Margaret Mary Concannon. Thanks for asking. )
A name can suggest personality. A character name you initially dislike can grow on you if the character does; conversely, if you initially favor a name (or are at least neutral), when it is bestowed on the bad guy, you may dislike it forever after. A character named after your eighth grade nemesis may even keep you from fully engaging in the story.
My JEM character names (at least, the ones not culled from history) were chosen deliberately based on a number of factors including literal meaning, geographical accuracy, mouth-feel, pronounce-ability, and so on. When I was in the process of crafting a surname for the bad guy, "Patch," I wanted something that would suggest his Darkness, but I didn’t want to minimize his power or his danger. (I chose “Duncan,” which means brown warrior—a name that also suits his geographic origins).
Using the British naming rules above, it took an entire morning to name Margery’s siblings and near-family relations, including the name of Granny Kestrel’s husband, Dylan, who crossed the moor from Wales to find her.
A good source for name discussion is an oldie titled TREASURE OF NAME LORE by Elsdon C. Smith, which includes sections on American Indian names, anagrams, names in other countries, extra-long names, and names popular in different religions. Smith writes, “In writing fiction, since all the author has to put his ideas across to the reader are the words he uses, he cannot waste any by selecting names for his characters that do not have connotations that help to describe the character. Even the sound may be used to convey an impression of the one named . . . Dickens was an expert in selecting names that contained a subtle half-suggestion of other words in our language which are associated with the traits embodied in the characters he delineated.”
There you go: let the great Charles Dickens be your guide. Use the magical power of names to boost your story’s impact.