My mother had an old paperback book on the shelf in her bedroom when I was growing up called Name Your Baby, written by Lareina Rule and first published in 1963. (My copy is now a pile of ashes, but you can see one like mine here.) Mom told me that she’d purchased the book when she was pregnant with me so that she could decide what to name me. She ended up choosing one of the more popular names of the early 70s — Michelle. At the time, a popular singer was Michelle Lee, so my mother was inspired by her. However, gave me the middle name Lynn because it’s the middle name that she shares with my father. But that’s another story.
I was still in elementary school when I discovered this book and became obsessed with reading through all the names, discovering what they meant, feeling them in my mouth, and wondering what kind of people would bear those names. I soon learned that the people in my life often define a name for me. For example, Becky is worn by baby-blonde girls with a mean girl streak. Chris is a nice, quiet guy I can never get to know. Perhaps it’s telling that I chose that name for my son.
I was also fascinated naming advice provided (check the initials formed by the names you choose…) and by the astrological/personality descriptions featured at the beginning of the book. I’d read through mine — children born between December 23 and January 20 — and wonder how true the description was.
If your child is born in Capricorn he or she will have a quiet, somber meditative nature ruled by reason instead of impulse. Such children are thrifty, reserved, diplomatic, deep thinkers, and determined.”
All that said, I have loved writing for almost as long as I can remember, and that name book played right into the stories that I wanted to write. After all, if you’re going to create characters, you need names for them. And not just any name will do. The name has to have significance, meaning beyond just something to call the character. It needs to speak to who they are, not just via the written meaning of the name, but the cultural significance, as well. This significance should serve as a shorthand for who the character is and should be, if only viscerally, understood by the readers. The astrological and mythological descriptions in Rule’s book, along with the lists of famous people who bore them, helped me understand the potential significance a name could have. For example…
Let’s look at the etymology of Harry Potter, for example. According to the Pottermore website:
The name Harry is the Middle English form of the name ‘Henry’, a name which was favoured by many an English king. Leadership runs deep in Harry’s name, as well as the motif of war – which Harry is sadly very familiar with. Harry is also related to the Old High German word ‘Heri’ which means ‘army’. As one of the founders of Dumbledore’s Army, this seems apt.”
I love how the name itself helps us define the character. Draco Malfoy, even without reading the etymology of the name, serves as a visual and historical shorthand for who the character is.
I want my character names to carry as much history and weight as Rowlings. To help me, I now use a website called Nameberry that includes many lists of names and meanings.
I’m probably not there yet, but one character I’ve created is Paden Hollis. According to her history, her father is from the small town of Hollis (which is near where my father grew up, and her mother is from Paden, near Prague (which is here I buy my Kolaches). Paden is considered a boy’s name (Which is cool because it’s a thing these days to give female characters names that are distinctly male. Think Michael Burnham from Star Trek Discovery.) Hollis is considered a unisex name is fairly equally popular on both ends of the spectrum. Neither name should have much recognition outside of Oklahoma, so that should enable me to craft its perception through my character. At least, that’s the idea.