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
I'm a city-fied suburban hockey mom who owns more books than I will probably ever manage to read in my lifetime, but I'm determined to try.
The only name that forced me to DNF a book was… I am not kidding… “Nasty.” Just a nickname, but that hardly matters.
My husband actually has “Baby boy” on his birth certificate, and had some difficulties obtaining his first passport. :-)
I’m going to be completely honest and admit that sometimes I’m put off reading a book because of the characters’ names. See: Penny Reid’s Winston Brothers series. I mean, Jethro? Cletus? Not disputing whether they’re good/well-written, but just…my brain is fixated on how awful these names are. Also, if I had a really negative association with a name (especially a man’s name), I’d…have to get over this.
I read (and greatly enjoyed) a book last year in which the hero is named Kale. Yes, KALE. I hate kale, the food, so this was distracting.
I do know what you mean, Amanda, and I had particular difficulty with “Cletus” as a name for one of her heroes. However, I’m fairly certain Penny Reid knows this and chose the names deliberately, and one thing I do like about many of her books is that she can take an issue and force readers to rethink common biases and presumptions we likely have about them. In the Winston Bros. series, there is a tongue in cheek storytelling around bearded Appalacian men who mostly work as auto mechanics in a rural town. On the surface, that descriptive sends me running in the opposite direction, but her books almost always defy surface appearances. Of note, her next book featuring Roscoe features an interracial romance — in a small Southern rural town. I’m keen to see how she pulls this off! And Cletus with his ridiculous name and wild unruly beard turned out to be my favorite of her heroes.
I think NA authors are the worst offenders. I have come across a Royal, Tank, Until, Ever…. no. Just no.
I have a thing about crazy names. I don’t care who the author is if the name, especially the hero’s name, is nutty it is automatically a DNF. I remember a historical from a while ago that came highly recommended and the hero’s name was Sinjun which someone mentioned is how St. John is pronounced in Britain. I don’t know how accurate that is but after that I couldn’t finish the book because his surname was St John. So his name was St. John St John.
That being said regular names can be problematic for me too. For example, my father in laws name is Joe, my brother in law is Joey and my dad’s name was Jose. So I can’t with a hero named Joe or any variation thereof. It is just too weird lol
Yes, St. John is usually pronounced that way, but St. John St. John is downright stupid.
Penny Reid’s Winston Bros. series features a slew of traditional Southern name, including Cletus! There’s also Dwayne, Billy, Jethro, Roscoe, and Beau. It really works in this series.
Jenna – I love this blog post! I would only add that as bizarre and ridiculous as (I think) these names are, I teach at a middle school (and before that a preschool), and though your examples are fairly extreme, parents are also getting more and more creative with names these days! The spelling of traditional and non-traditional names is similarly fascinating – in one class I have a Jayden, Jaiden, Jay’din, and Jaden. THAT’S A LOT OF JADEN’S (my preferred spelling) IN ONE CLASS.
I look at our roll call nearly every morning and wonder over more than a few of the names I see. Off the top of my head: Omar, Akari, Ford, Park, River, Palmer, Jozey, Sierra, Pandora…I’ll let you guess whether these are boys or girls. Good luck!
I love a well named character – though my favorite Romancelandia name (and if I had another boy I would use it) is Kit as a nickname for Christopher. Followed closely by Robyn and Jamie (for boys) and Henrietta and Georgiana (for girls). I’ve got a Francis and a Ben and I’m married to a Mike…not very adventurous am I?
Yep, it’s the same here; names go in fads, but things are definitely getting more outlandish now. Here, the craze is for double-barrelled girls names; Lil(l)y-Mae, Lil(l)y-Rose, which sort of hark backwards, and when it comes to boys, we have loads of Callums, Camerons, Jakes, Jaydens… and then there are the names that make you wonder if the parents could spell or are some attempt at originality. In one class I had recently, I had to do a double-take when I read the name “Phayth” on the register.
Omg. Phayth. Omg.
Seriously, I looked at it and had to actually sound it out phonetically!
A quick search on IMDB reveals that there are a couple other actors and a writer named Laird, either first or middle name. I’m an old movie fan too, so I knew about Laird Cregar. Nowadays, anything goes when it comes to names (I used to work with a guy named Wonderful Williams and the young lady who was arrested this past year for leaking documents from the NSA is named Reality Winner). So off beat, weird, and unusual names may work fine in a contemporary romance. But in a historical, I would expect the name to be appropriate to the time period.
Wow – great to learn that there are actually some real “Lairds” out there, and some very famous ones at that!
I am a librarian, and the names I see every day are even more creative. Some examples: Aaroniverse, Legend, Adonis, and my personal favorites, the brothers Latch & Lock. On the girls’ side, Whisper, Treasury, and sisters Precious & Princess. But the worst was a child whose name was listed as “Monster”. ( Hoping it was a joke).
Here’s one for you–
Famous big wave surfer Laird Hamilton (b 1964) and a total hunk. Married to model/volleyball star Gabrielle Reece. He could easily be an inspiration for a romance novel!
There was an actor back in the 1940s (okay, I’m an old movies freak) named Laird Cregar. He generally played villains, so I wouldn’t be tempted to use the name for a hero.
Personally, I like names like Tom, Dick, and Harry And John. Why are there so few heroes named John?
Ah, but Laird was his middle name! His birth name was Samuel Laird Cregar!
A few years ago, I started and simultaneously stopped reading a historical romance on page one when I saw the heroine’s name was Skylar! Was any woman before 1990 ever named Skylar? I just couldn’t suspend disbelief at that point. Writers–please be reasonably historically-accurate when it comes to names.
Oh good grief! I have problems with names like Skylar, Harper and others of that ilk in contemps, but in historicals? Doesn’t give you a lot of confidence in the author, does it? The heroine in Lenora Bell’s début was named Charlene – and while I realise that some names have been around longer than one would think, it didn’t take me long to find out that one hadn’t. (And if I could find it, then so could the author have done.) Then there was the late 19th century story I read in which the hero was called Travis. Er, yeah – nope! It seems many authors are like many parents these days, and desperate to give their babies unusual names. But there’s a reason the standards are popular. I’d take a James over a Travis any day!