What’s In a Name? A Chance for Success

By Katherine Sharma

romeoSeveral young couples in my circle recently welcomed babies, and their struggles with name choices reminded me of my own deliberations over naming of fictional characters–because the answer to Juliet’s famous question “What’s in a name?” can affect social (or publishing) success. For example, a 2003 study of resumés identical except for fake names divided between those that sounded “white,” like Emily and Greg, and those that sounded African-American, like Lakisha and Jamal, found the resumés with “white” names received a 50% higher call-back rate from employers.It would be interesting to see if those results have changed in 2015.

Certainly, given names today reflect more social and ethnic diversity than ever before. In the U.S. of 1950, only 5% of parents chose a name for their child that wasn’t in the top 1,000 names; by 2012, that figure was up to 27%. The expansion of naming trends in multicultural America opens up the choices for creating fictional names that are ironic, symbolic/connotative, phonetically suggestive, alliterative or just poetically right to the inner ear. But there is also more potential for faddish anachronisms, social bias and offense, regional dissonance and ethnic missteps.

In a writersdigest.com guest post, veteran mystery author Elizabeth Sims (Rita Farmer mysteries) offers some rules for creating fictional names without tripping over today’s naming trends:

  • Check root meanings of names, so Caleb, which means “faithful,” can fit a loyal character without hitting readers over the head with Loyal (or it could be an ironic choice for a villain);
  • Get your era right and realize that Taylor doesn’t fit a twenty-year-old girl in the 1930s or a ninety-year-old woman in 2015, but Myrtle works;
  • Say the names out loud because some names look good on paper but don’t work when spoken (don’t undermine the future audiobook/movie);
  • Manage your cast appropriately by varying names in terms of initials and syllables to prevent reader confusion when you have a big cast of characters;
  • Think it through to the real world, which is why, Sims points out, most fictional villains don’t have middle names or initials since that increases the chances of offending a real person, who can come after you with a suit (or a gun);
  • Check those names again to make sure you have researched thoroughly, especially for ethnic or foreign names. For example, Sims admits that she once named a supposedly Japanese-American character Gary Kwan, only to discover that Kwan is a Chinese surname. To read Sims’ full post, go to http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-7-rules-of-picking-names-for-fictional-characters


Katherine Sharma’s family roots are in Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. But after her early childhood in Texas, she has moved around the country and lived in seven other states, from Virginia to Hawaii. She currently resides in California with her husband and three children. She has also traveled extensively in Europe, Africa and Asia, and makes regular visits to family in India. After receiving her bachelor’s degree. in economics and her master’s degree in journalism from the University of Michigan, Katherine worked as a newspaper and magazine writer and editor for more than 15 years. She then shifted into management and marketing roles for firms in industries ranging from outdoor recreation to insurance to direct marketing. Although Katherine still works as a marketing consultant, she is now focused on creative writing.

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