More Obessessing over Characters’ Names

I’m still at it, thinking about changing names again. I’m 75,000 words into my current WIP, the vampire novel I’m calling “Revenants Abroad” for now, and I’m still not 100% happy with one of the main character’s names. I’ve been testing a new name on her, but I’m not entirely happy with it, either. I’ve been to so many baby name sites, and nothing is really leaping out at me for this gal. One problem is that I haven’t developed her as much as the other two, she is still unsettled in my mind as to who she really is.

When choosing names, I try to avoid anything that’s currently in the top 100, or has been in the last few years. At the same time, I don’t want something that’s too outlandish (or just ugly). A couple months ago I stumbled on a great tool for tracking the popularity of a name , with statistics back to the 1920s, and shows it in a nice visual graph form. Click the link above or the graphic below to go to the site.

name tracker

Just for fun I picked some common names to compare. In the graph above I entered Suzanne, Mary, Lydia and Catherine. The graph starts in the 1920s and goes to the 2000s. As you can see, “Mary”  has been steadily tanking in popularity since the 1920s. The rise and fall of the popularity of the others is not as dramatic, mostly holding fairly steady. I’ve had as many as seven names in the graph at a time, I don’t know what limit it may have. It does get a little hard to follow if you have too many displayed at once, though. To remove one you can click the little X to the left of the name in the legend on the side. To start over, hit the “Clear All” button.

The site also has the top 100 boys and girls names, the most recent data available for May 2009, courtesy of the Social Security Administration. I was surprised at some that made the list: Addison (??) at #12, Brooklyn at #47, Olivia at #6, Trinity at #70 (come on people, get over “The Matrix” already. Not to mention I always think of the Trinity atomic bomb test in Alamagordo in 1945. No, I wasn’t there, but I’m old enough to remember learning about it in school). Madison was almost unheard of until the 1980s and the movie “Splash” came out, and has been steadily climbing in popularity ever since, coming in at #4 currently. Since the information comes from the SSA, it’s limited to name trends in the U.S. If anyone knows of anything similar in other countries, I would love to know about it.

I don’t much care for made-up names, I like names to have a meaning behind them. Unless it suits the character, I also avoid overtly ethnic names. For instance, I’m not going to name a character from a small town in Wyoming after an Aztec goddess unless there’s a really good reason for it, like her parents were archaeologists who spent time in Mexico on various digs before joining a hunt for dinosaur fossils in Wyoming. Or something. It’s jarring and distracts from the story. Seriously, how many of us can even pronounce Coyolxauhqui? (I’m guessing it’s somewhere along the lines of Coil-shau-kwee). So, I think I’ll be finding something more prosaic for my character.

19 thoughts on “More Obessessing over Characters’ Names

  1. Do any of your sites address the rise and fall of a name’s popularity for a specific gender? For example, my initial exposure to the name “Cameron” (John Cameron Swayze; Ferris Buehler’s B.F) was as a male name, until the actress C Diaz came along. So 3 years ago, when my nephew was telling me who was invited to his 5th birthday party, I stopped him after “… an’ Cameron” and asked him if that kid was a boy or a girl. He rolled his eyes, the way only a 5-year-old who knows everything can, and said “Cameron’s a GIRL’S name!”

    Sydney’s another one: I grew up associating it with old Jewish men, but in recent years I’ve seen it attached to young WASPy women


  2. Not that I can recall. There are so many men’s names that have become popular for women (Stacy, Evelyn, Leslie, Sydney, etc.). And surnames as first names seems to be growing in popularity as well. I’m sure we can think of endless examples of that (Madison, Hayden).


    1. It’s a fascinating little resource. I found that my own name peaked in popularity in the 1940’s, declined steadily after that, and flatlined after 1970 (which probably coincided with the time that parents stopped worrying about giving their kids saints’ names). It’s official – I have one of those Ol’ Lady Names! If I live any longer, it might just be due for a resurgence.
      My husband’s name (his given name, not “Fang,” which is of course an evergreen classic) peaked in the 60’s, then took a nose dive.


  3. Looks like mine peaked mid-1950s, and it’s flatlined now, too. Ah well, maybe that’s my problem, I’m out of my time. Both of my kids’ names are on the decline, as well.


  4. I consider your kids’ names to be nice normal ideals – not quirky, not trendy, just regular & normal. Could it be that the indicator is a few years behind? This term I have 2 freshmen boys in one class who share the name of your firstborn.

    I’ve known for years that my own name was a little, well, not so much out of style as OUTSIDE-of-style. I can’t imagine being called anything else, tho. My brothers’ names, likewise, are declining/bordering on flatlining: as I said, I think we’re probably all due to become Trendy again any minute. Keep your female protagonist’s name as it is, and by the time you finish the book and choose a publisher, she’ll probably be in the top 10.


  5. I actually purposely chose names that were NOT in the top 10 for my boys, although Evil Son #2’s name is in the top 100 still.

    The female lead’s name doesn’t make the top 100 for girls, which is good and bad. Again, it’s one that used to be popular, but has fallen completely out of favor since we were kids. Since I’ve set my story in the future, I’m not sure what will by then be a really old-fashioned name is the best fit. Ugh. Why do I have such a hard time with this?


    1. 3 of my nephews’ names are in the top 10, and all but one are in the top 100 (and I’ll bet if you heard that guy’s name, you’d consider it more common & “regular” than some of what’s currently popular – “Kaden,” for example, is #99 and I have never heard of it. Is that a soap opera name or something?) but most of their names (especially the younger half of the crew – my big brother’s ex-wife leaned a little toward trendy) reflect not some much a desire to follow a trend as to just pick a nice pleasant “regular guy” name to go with our distinctive surname. For example, I’m fascinated that Xavier is in the top 100 as I have always loved the idea of have X for an initial, but it would be kinda of bulky along with our family name, and it wouldn’t have worked w/my husband’s last name either ‘cuz of that kind of strange assonance w/the last syllable.


      1. No idea where Kaden came from, I’ve never heard it either. How odd that it’s in the top 100. I see several Hispanic names on the list besides Xavier, a sign of the changing demographics in the country.

        I think Xavier would work nicely with Fang’s surname. I don’t think the endings are too similar to sound well together.


  6. Just ruminatin’ – I think if I were naming characters for the future, I’d go with either Biblical names or those from perennial classics of literature, stuff that I believe folks will still be reading, or scanning, or having uploading into their ears or whatever, hundreds of years from now. Are there any names from Jane Austen, or Jack Kerouac, that appeal to you?

    In the Novel in My Head (it may make it to NaNoWriMo, maybe not – you’ll be the first to know!) the putative protagonist’s first name is, in fact, the name of an Austen character, but I actually named her b/c it’s a saint’s name that American-born children of Polish immigrants would pick for their daughter. Her brothers, likewise, have names that sound American, but a little Polish Catholic as well.


  7. Very good ideas. I don’t think Kerouac has any that I’d use (he didn’t feature too many females in On the Road), I’ll have to think about that angle though.

    I’m excited that you’re thinking about doing NaNo! I’ve done almost nothing as far as planning, and I’m not an outliner so I’ll probably be going in cold like I did last year. As you know I’ve got the merest skeleton of a plot to start with that’s been simmering for about the last six months now so there’s something to start with, which is more than I had last year when I signed up on October 28 🙂


  8. This is why you’re my kinda people, Gypsy – only Didge, Rosie, and a handful of my colleagues and family members would do a separate post to correct the possessive “its” 😉


  9. if i can do anything to coax you into NaNo just say the word. i am starting to get more and more excited as 11/1 approaches. and my brain droppings of character bits and plot points are growing into piles of notes. this is going to be both fun and scary…..


  10. I think between the two of us we’ve just about got her… 😉

    I’m so excited for you, Rosie! I’m starting to reach for the panic button, myself. I seem to have hit a wall with ideas, but I am confident that once I PBIC it will start to flow. I am looking forward to regaining my ability to tune out distractions, as I did last year during NaNo. I seem to focus well when I’m under the gun like that. And let me know if you want to try a word war sometime! 🙂

    C’mon, MJ, you know you want to… 😈


  11. yes, yes! Word war for everyone! I haven’t been this giddy about an assignment in a really long time. It is such a different process from my daily grind, and i’m looking forward to challenging myself just to get the volume up to a critical mass (even if i don’t make it to the full 50k).

    MJBlog — come in on, the water’s fine!


  12. LOL you’re cracking me up, Rosie 😉 What are friends for, if not to encourage more mayhem in life?

    I’m heading to my local Meet-n-Greet this evening, meet some of my fellow westside NaNo’ers. I tend to be kind of reclusive so I figure this will be good for me.

    I’m up for a word war when you are. Get your game face on. 😀


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