Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Naming Trend

Names are one of the beautiful parts about fiction. We can name our characters, our worlds, our technology, the abilities our characters have, the subcultures they interact with, our books themselves--and names are not just a title, but an inherent meaning. They're suggestive. They're a teeny tiny hook.

For some writers (not me) the perfect name is crucial: a story cannot be written without the right name. For others, names are often placeholders to refer to a character until something wittier is procured. (Again, not me.) But everyone has a process. Every genre has its conventions. Our processes, our naming methodologies, separate us each a little but from other writers.

Names are important.

Because, respect for Shakespeare aside, Mr. Bob Carpenter is not the same as Mr. Sebastian Chester Tippeny. A woman with kids might eat at Sticky Fingers Bakery, but not Esteban's Fine Dining. Done well, names are an effective asset. In the debut novel Warped, the author did a great job using names to different the character's respective time periods. Tessa is from modern day Oregon. William de Chaucy is from 16th century Cornwall. With names alone, Maurissa Guibord shows us the conflict between these two characters.

Now, switching gears here from writer to reader: as a reader, I like a name that fits into the tone and feeling of the story, that feels appropriate. When I read fantasy, I can work with names like Illeya and Kikulv, even if I could never pronounce them. When I read about a little girl in the midwest, names like Sally Ann and Joe Bob work just fine.

Which brings me to my actual question. How obvious--or subtle--should names be?

There's a rising trend in YA (especially YA with paranormal elements) to give main characters and love-interests exotic, tantalizing, and knock-you-flat-suggestive names. Here are a few that really struck me, along with an excerpt of their Goodreads blurb:

Skye in A Beautiful Dark -- "Torn between unpredictable Asher, whom she loves, and the infuriating Devin, who she can’t stay away from, her fate is murky as a starless night. And as the secrets of her true identity are revealed, Skye realizes that her destiny may reside in the Heavens—or somewhere darker."

Ashlinne Wilde in Wildefire -- "Ashline Wilde never received an instruction manual on how to be a 16-year-old Polynesian volcano goddess...With a war between the gods looming over Blackwood, Ash must master the fire smoldering within her before she clashes with her sister [Eve] one final time"

Ade Patience in Future Imperfect -- "Ade Patience can see the future and it's destroying his life. When the seventeen-year-old Mantlo High School student knocks himself unconscious, he can see days and decades into his own future"

Gaia Stone in Birthmarked -- "After climate change, on the north shore of Unlake Superior, a dystopian world is divided between those who live inside the wall, and those, like sixteen-year-old midwife Gaia Stone, who live outside. It’s Gaia’s job to “advance” a quota of infants from poverty into the walled Enclave, until the night one agonized mother objects." (Let me note that Gia, or Gaia, or any of it's alternatives is an old term for Earth.)

Clarity Fern in Clarity -- "Clarity 'Clare' Fern sees things. Things no one else can see. Things like stolen kisses and long-buried secrets. All she has to do is touch a certain object, and the visions come to her. It's a gift. And a curse."

Eden in A Touch Mortal -- "trapped between life and death, cursed to spread chaos with her every touch, Eden could be the key in the eternal struggle between heaven and hell. All because she gave her heart to one of the Fallen, an angel cast out of heaven."

Mind you, the only novel that I've read from this list was Clarity, and the author did a splendid job hanging a lantern on the name Clarity and making it a completely plausible part of the story. But this trend makes me squirm. It reminds me of those early novels we all have, where the character is named something screamingly obvious--a rebellious teenager named Rebel (Reb for short, so no one knows!) or an identity-changing character named Shadow. Etc etc. I'm not trying to criticize this trend--I mean, hey, those last two examples were mine. But I am trying to analyze it, and I'm curious what everyone else thinks. So...

Have you guys noticed the "obvious" name trend in YA? What do you think--good or bad? As readers, where do you like to see this balanced, and as writers, how do you go about balancing it?

Truly and always,
-Creative A


Read my books; lose ten pounds! said...

My two main characters in My STupid Girl were simple. For all the boys I used old school friends. I picked the easiest name "David" (who was a friend) becuase it was the easiest to type over and over again. Then I went to Yahoo and I said, Ok, Im picking the first name I see and I saw "I love Lucy" on there. So became the love of David and Lucy. Now it is so them!

Katie said...

I do think the "different name" thing can be overdone. It just depends on the genre (sci fi can get away with a lot) and also the ages and locations of the characters. I live in Atlanta. Everybody under the age of 14 has a crazy name, it seems, because people are pretty trendy in this area and unusual seems to be a trend.

Up until last year I worked in a school, and half the kids (of all races and ages) had names that I had to ask them to spell a couple times. And I do know an Ade (pronounced A-day, it's an African name), an Eden, an Ashlyn (it's spelled different, I know!), and an Asher. Roman seems to be super popular lately, although it wasn't in the list of books you mentioned ... I know of at least 3 Romans! I can't think of any Devins off the top of my head, but I have seen that name around. And speaking of Ade, his sister (named Folashade) was reading an older book from the 70s in which all the characters' names were Sally, John, Christy, etc. I remember we were in the library, and she looked up from the book and complained, "These names are so BORING!"

So ... I think it depends. But I agree that sometimes it can feel like overkill.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I think if it's an obvious name that simply reflects a characteristic like your "Reb," then it gets to be annoying. When it's a character whose very presence in the story is symbolic, then I can usually tolerate it. I like it best if the author can do a little research, give a character a name with meaning without beating the reader over the head with it. Better to give the reader a little credit rather than insult their intelligence!

Erin Michelle said...

I love names! I'm one of those writers whose characters simply won't do anything on the page until they have just the right name. Struggling with a surname for my female protagonist right now and it's starting to get to me.

I do notice this "trend" sometimes, but I think it's also a real-life trend lately with parents naming their children things like Ryder, Linkin and Seraphina, so why can't writers jump on the bandwagon?

I try to balance it in my own writing - on one hand, I could never call a character John Smith, but it's not like I'll name them Erastus Dougald either. Some of my main characters are Hayden Connors and Sienna Hawthorn. Not too out there, but not entirely ordinary either, which is how I like it :)

Creative A said...

@Ten Pounds, out of curiosity, is this a YA you're talking about? I've heard people complain that older (aka, not teenage) writers use names of people in their generation, which feels jarring to young readers, but if you look at lists of the most popular names I've been surprised to find how many names remain common from generation to generation. David and Lucy does have a cute ring to it!


Creative A said...

Hey Katie! That's a really, really good point. I know a ton of kids in that age group with more experimental names. Stuff like Jasmine, Sky, Aiden, ect, I've all heard in real life.

Kind of brings up another interesting question -- is the exotic name trend something we should begin imitating, as writers, for that age group?

Thanks for the comment!


Creative A said...

Hey Sarah!

Really agree with you here. That's along the lines of how I feel. I think part of the problem, for me (and why I moved away from names like Reb) is because it actually feels less creative. It feels like the author grasped the most obvious name possible and stopped searching there. It reduces some of the mystery for me, and after that, I do feel a bit beaten over the head with it.


Creative A said...

Hey Erin!

I like that. Sounds like you have a nice balance going on. What you just said, about this happening in real life, is so true now that I think about it. I guess part of it is that parents don't know what their kids will do in life; authors know exactly what their characters will do.

How do you feel about names being not just exotic, but suggestive of the story?

Thanks for commenting!


Anne E. Johnson said...

When I think of authors who use naming as a powerful device in fiction, my ideal example is Charles Dickens. Think Ebenezer Scrooge, Wackford Squeers. Dickens brilliantly used sounds to create names that express his characters' personalities.

Creative A said...

Hey Anne! Oh, that's a great example. Thanks for posting it. There's a term for words that are physically suggestive of their meaning--can't remember the term?--and this is the same concept. Like it a lot.

Thanks for commenting!

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