Name That Character
I’ve recently begun outlining a new contemporary erotic romance. I’ve got the story fairly well conceived, but I needed inspiration for my characters’ names so I turned to one of those “name your baby” books. While thumbing through the pages and weighing my choices, I came across an interesting tidbit. Back in 2006, a psychologist conducted a study in which six pictures of women all deemed equally attractive were shown to a population of college students with fake names attached to each picture. Three of the women were given “pretty” names, and three were given “unattractive” names. The names’ desireability, by the way, had been previously determined by an earlier student survey. You can probably guess the results. Not only did the women with the pretty names garner far more votes by the male population, but they were the clear winners among the female voters as well.
Name association is powerful. Think of the images brought to mind when you hear the female names Bertha, Edna, or Agnes versus Tiffany, Bambi, or Dawn. Quite a difference, right? Now let’s consider a female protagonist who’s sexy, smart, and beautiful beyond words. She travels the globe on behalf of her spy agency, using her intellect and feminine wiles to pry information from powerful men and get whatever she needs. What’s this savvy gal’s name? Isabella? Nicole? Lola? Maybe even Sophia or Gigi. The name of this character depends on many factors, including one’s personal history with a particular name. But it’s a safe bet that our female spy protagonist isn’t going to be called Ethel. Or Madge.
This is true for the guys as well. Our heros need heroic names. The powerful leader of a multi-billion dollar international conglomerate just isn’t going to be named Dudley. He might, however, be Jackson, Mark, or Miles. There are also regional association to consider. Jeb or Clint are names with more of a southern flair versus Malcolm or Frederick that sound more northeastern.
But what if, as a writer, you simply love the name Wilbur? It’s got some positive association for you because you once knew someone with that name, or maybe you just like how it sounds coming off the tongue. Can you create a macho, powerful character and name him Wilbur? Why not? (and don’t wimp out and call him Will for short. He’s Wilbur, damn it!) For a writer, it’s an interesting challenge. Give your character a name that doesn’t initially conjure up a specific image, whether that be sexiness, or masculinity, or power, or elegance. Call your heroine Beulah, for example. Make her a stunning beauty, a media maven, a corporate powerhouse. Whatever you want, but something that doesn’t initially seem to fit the Beulah image. I think it’s a creative opportunity for a writer to own that name and turn it into something that doesn’t, at first glance, seem like an obvious choice.
I suppose there are some names that just aren’t going to fly, despite the talents of the writer. A main character named Rambo, for example, calls to mind a specific image that may be impossible for readers to shake. Same with Rihanna. Or Madonna (but really, would you actually name a character Madonna?).
In the meantime, I continue developing my characters. In time, as I get to know them, they’ll eventually tell me their names.