So, I’m reading a book that’s pretty decent (my review is either forthcoming or already posted, depending on when this blog post goes live), but there is simply one aspect that I cannot get past.
The hero’s name is Laird.
When my eye catches it, I want to read “Lard” but then I think harder, and still all I can come up with is that Laird is the title used when referring to Scottish lords in historical romances. Except the story I’m reading is a new adult set in modern USA. Aye, it’s verra strange, dinna ye think, lassie?
What is with authors and the way that they name characters these days, especially the guys? I once reviewed a book where the hero’s name was Rome, and he was a member of a pack of dudes named Jet, Nash, Rowdy, Asa and Rule. When I asked my fellow reviewers for examples, they offered some doozies. AAR reviewer Haley Kral mentioned Laura Leigh’s Nauti series which includes a Rowdy, a Natches, a Dawg, a Brogan, a Lyrica (“isn’t that a medicine?”), and a Chatham. She also brought up the Wild Rider series by Jaci Burton with its Grange, Crush and Shadoe. You can’t make this stuff up. Or, rather, you can only make this stuff up.
Just for kicks, I checked out the US Social Security site where you can find the popularity of names in each year. I looked to see what names were hot during the years that today’s new adults were born (roughly 1994 through 1999), and it was truly no surprise to find that the classics such as Jacob, Michael, Matthew, Joshua, Nicholas, Christopher and Tyler appeared in the Top 10 for that entire time period, with Andrew, Daniel and Brandon rounding out the Top 11. Those Top 11 accounted for over 16% of all boy names given each year for that six-year period. Using statistics and math and stuff, this means that roughly 1.8 million guys between the ages of 18 and 23 are walking around with one of those 11 names.
Thinking that since these names are so common, it makes sense that writers would want their characters to be unique, and thus maybe they are choosing names from the rare end of the Most Popular Names list. I went back to those six years and looked at the bottom 50 names – those coming in from 951 through 1,000 – according the official records. What you find there are alternative spellings (or outright misspellings) of names higher on the list (Alexandre instead of Alexander, Dyllan instead of Dylan, Jovani and Jovanny), names that seem to originate from other nationalities (Kahlil, Antwon, Isidro, Vincenzo) or original ethnic names (Devontae, Keandre, Kylan). You also find the hilarious mistakes – the 1994 list contains the name Male and the 1998 list has Babyboy, clearly errors or unfortunate pranks where the baby’s gender was put in the place of name on whatever official document was submitted. What’s truly tragic is that 131 boys were given the name Male and 141 the name Babyboy. Their parents should be charged with some crime.
To give writers their due credit, I did find fun names like Phoenix, Prince, Storm, Jayce, Bishop, Ryder, and even a Maverick in the bottom 50s. Throw in a few Schuylers, Cains, Ramseys (can’t see this name without Ramsey Bolton associations!), Brycens and even a Chadwick and you do have some originality based in reality. You just have to go far enough down the list.
But when it comes to the Lairds and Natcheses and Rowdys, the wheels fall off the wagon. The Social Security naming site has a nifty little tool that allows you to look up the popularity trends of names over any given time period going back to 1900. I did a search for some of these bugaboos and got the same result for all of them: Laird/Natches/Rowdy is not in the top 1000 names for any year of birth beginning with 1900. I have a feeling if I pop in a lot of today’s oddball fictional character names, I may get the same result, most likely because these names aren’t so much names as they are nouns, adjectives and adverbs used for names.
I started to wonder at the reasons behind these crazy, out-there choices. I came up with a couple of reasons that make sense to me. First, these authors are creating a fantasy world for the reader, and somehow tossing in a Rob or a Josh or even a Connor hits a little too close to reality for the painting. It’s easy to get swept off your feet by a Hawk. Not so much by a Joe.
Second, because these heroes are so over-the-top perfect – exquisitely cut, incredibly endowed, smart, successful, fantastic lovers, uber-confident – you need a name that doesn’t evoke a real, human male with all of his real, human faults and failings. While I’m sure that there are tons of Matthews and Nicks and Brandons out there who are amazing people with six-pack abs and… ahem… substantial packages, the image I project in my mind when I read about a Sterling or a Granite is quite different than the one I conjure when I envision a Jim or William.
There’s also a boredom factor at work. We get tired of hearing the same names over and over again, and it’s fun to shake things up. I think this is why characters in today’s books feature names that are popular to give to today’s babies, rather than the names that were popular back when that character was most likely born. A twenty-three year old guy is more likely to be named Joshua (#4th most popular name in 1994) than he is to be named Mason (#125th in 1994) but more likely to be a Mason (#4th most popular name in 2016) in a 2016 work of fiction than to be a Joshua (#35th in 2016). Could be that writers view their characters as babies of a sort, and as such, name them following current baby naming trends.
Sometimes, an odd name works because it enhances the flavor of the book. AAR reviewer Alexandra Anderson mention Penny Reid’s Winston Brothers series. “[Cletus] is the first odd name that comes to my mind. But I loved his book (Beard Science) in spite of his unconventional first name. In the hands of a good author it added to his quirky personality, rather than coming across as ridiculous.”
Too, there is statistical support for avoiding the most common names. Ever since the mid-2000s when over half of the population tipped into the “has access to internet” column, people have had more exposure to wider variety of names. When you had to actually meet a Jordan or a Logan or a Hunter in person (or via TV) in order to even know that those are legitimate names to call your next born son, your choices were very slim. But once you could click a mouse and access the entire world of baby names, the sky became the limit. Number geeks like me will notice when you look at percentages that the top ten male names in 1994 constituted 15% of male births, whereas in 2016, the top ten only added up to 7.6% of given boys’ names, almost exactly half. Today, the distribution of names is more evenly spread rather than concentrated in the top fifty or so the way it was only ten or so years ago. So the chances that any one boy will have a somewhat unique name has increased over the last two decades.
That said, there is a fine line when a name goes from being unique to the ridiculous. At the very least, writers who want to use a name that is questionably not even a name should give that character an interesting enough backstory to explain it. In my Laird example, perhaps his mother’s maiden name was Laird and it was a compromise with her husband when she took his last name. Or keep the unconventional naming to one character rather than giving the crazy names to an entire biker gang or college hockey team. Just to be clear, we aren’t talking nicknames here.
In the end, a character’s name should enhance the story. It shouldn’t cause the reader to come to a full stop and puzzle over its uniqueness/unrealistic-ness/weirdness. Good Laird, just give us a nice Michael once and a while.
~ Jenna Harper