When Business Slayer and I first started dating, he had a really old dog called Oprah, who his mother had named after the talk show host she was obsessed with. Oprah, when called by name, hardly ever came, but as I mentioned she was old and had started going deaf.
As time went on it struck me as odd I never heard another family member call the dog ‘Oprah’. That and the fact Business Slayer’s mum seemed the least likely person in the world to be obsessed with a talk show host should have been enough to set off alarm bells. But it didn’t and despite our blossoming friendship Oprah still ignored me when called.
The truth about Oprah comes out
Six months into our relationship I discovered Oprah wasn’t really named Oprah at all – but Dixie.
Dixie seemed like a completely different dog to me. Of course she wasn’t, but in my eyes she went from being the kind of dog you could curl up on the couch with (or jump on the couch with if you happened to be Tom Cruise) and spill your guts to. Dixie on the other hand, well, I knew nothing about her – did she like all female country music bands? I wasn’t sure.
But the experience did teach me an invaluable lesson about writing (and also about Business Slayer). I realised names can be a lot more powerful than you think.
What’s in a name?
Even Juliet acknowledged the power of names. She knew Romeo’s last name, Montague would prevent them from being together. Because it didn’t matter that she saw him for who he was, her family would only see him for what his name represented to them – an enemy.
How people perceive you
According to Professor James Bruning from Ohio University this is not unusual as the impact of names comes from how people expect to see you. For example, when teachers look at their class role before the school year begins, they are likely to make a judgement on their new students based on prior experiences with certain names. In the study, Crystal and Callum were both on the naughty list but teachers also acknowledged they were likely to be bright and popular too.
Bruning’s research, published in the Journal of Social Psychology suggests women with more feminine names, such as Elizabeth or Marta, were more likely to be employed in more ‘traditionally female’ jobs like hairdressing while the opposite was the case for males with more masculine names like Bruce or Hank. One can only hope we see a shift in such results as these types of gender stereotypes break down.
The phenomenon of names goes one step further when looking at nominative determinism. Does such stereotyping by ourselves and others explain why people choose occupations to suit their names? Think William Wordsworth.
Psychologist, Brett Pelham’s paper Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore suggests it does while also noting there’s a higher chance a women named Georgia will move to the state of Georgia, while men named Louis often end up in Louisiana.
A is for achievement. Royals equal success
In 2006 American economists looked at the link between surnames and academic success, finding that people with names starting with letters higher in the alphabet were more likely to win Nobel Prizes. Professor Richard Wiseman from the University of Hertfordshire concluded this was because we (and the judges) associate people at the top of the list as ‘winners’.
When the public were giving their opinion on the success of people with certain names it was Royal names – the Jameses and the Elizabeths who were perceived to be more successful
“This is one of those self-fulfilling prophecies: if you have a name which sounds intelligent or attractive, then you could be treated differently, or behave in a different way,” said Wiseman.
But what does this means for your characters?
Often when a character comes to you they are fully formed with a name already attached to them. That’s fantastic! But here are some things to keep in mind so characters’ names not only ring true to you, but also your audience;
- Choose a name that reflects the time period the story is set in, the location and cultural influences that would have impacted the choice of name. For example if your story is set in Iceland in the 1800’s chances are your character wouldn’t be named River.
- Think about the meaning of the name you’ve chosen or the significance and attributes people give to the name due to prior use (for example, Oprah).
- Don’t make character names too obscure even when writing fantasy or science fiction. There’s a reason we can pronounce Gandalf, Hodor and Sirius.
- Be creative and find a name that while familiar, sets your character and their story apart.
- Think about changing names in a controversial non-fiction story to protect both the person being written about and yourself.
- I would advise not to name fictional characters after someone you know but if you want to think about it carefully and check with them first.
In the end, choose a name that reflects who your character is, was, or wants to be and I’ll continue to remember Dixie as Oprah.
Have you read anything lately where you didn’t think a character’s name was right for them? Have you ever had to change one of your character’s names? Let us know in the comments.