An old picture of my Grandpa John

What’s in a name? An Ode to John

Louise is a feminine version of the name Louis and means ‘famous warrior’. Well, I’m not famous, and I’m not very warrior like. So what is really in a name?

Regardless of the original meaning of names we tend to make a judgement based on what people are called. At least at first anyway. After a while people just become their name, and they then become part of that judgement, whether good or bad.

Names can potentially tell us someone’s age, ethnicity, class, and general background, though we have to remember – not always accurately. After all names are usually chosen by tired, shell shocked parents with their own ideals for their child. My parents were young, rebellious, and I was very unplanned. I got off lightly with my name I think, something which I probably owe more to well-meaning relatives than a couple of bohemian 20 year olds.

Naming your own child is largely an act of selfishness. Most parents pick a name that they like, without thought of the long term impact on the child, particularly when it comes to spelling it out or pronouncing it (I really must apologise to my eldest daughter on that score…). They may pick a name to please or even spite their own parents.

Naming your book character is similarly exciting endeavour, it’s the chance to use that name you’ve been saving for your hypothetical third child that you plan never to have. Or the name that you wanted for your firstborn that your partner vetoed. However, it’s different in that there’s money and reputation at stake now (I mean you could argue there is with kids too, if you are hoping, like I am, that they will look after you in your dotage). A name can make or break a book. Coming up with names for your heroes is great fun.

What is a suitable name for a male hero? Is he enigmatic and brooding like Rhett Butler, Heathcliff or Mr Darcy? Rich and powerful like Rupert Campbell-Black, Jay Gatsby or Maxim de Winter? Perhaps he is humble like Tom Sawyer or Charlie Bucket?

What about the heroine? Perhaps you have a sparky woman like Scarlett O’Hara, Lyra Silvertongue, or Marianne Dashwood? Maybe she’s a plain Jane, or Anne Elliot who’s ‘lost her bloom’. Maybe your character doesn’t even have a name, like the protagonist of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Names like Katniss, Gandalf, Daenerys Targaryen will mark a book out as sci fi or fantasy. I’ve never read Game of Thrones but I always though Jon Snow was a pretty pedestrian name until I read that he was born Aegon Targaryen. That’s more like it.

Whether you like it or not, people will judge the name of characters in a book, at least until they get used to them, and hopefully fall in love with them.

My writing partner and I have had many debates over the character names in our current book. We each have a main character who’s point of view we are responsible for, and in doing so we created the characters and the names ourselves.

Our book is set around 2040, meaning our characters were born around the early 2000s, so I wanted to pick a name that was likely to have been popular around that time, and also just a name that I like. So, drumroll please, our two main protagonists are…

Jessica and John. Or to be more specific, Jessica Gabriel and John Eden.

Here’s some feedback we’ve had so far:

“Jessica’s a bit of a prissy name.” Jessica is a bit prissy, so I’m ok with that. Although I was close to changing it. She was very nearly ‘Mia’, but I think I’m sticking with Jessica.

“John is a placeholder name.” Or a “starter pack name” as my daughter rather tartly put it to my co-writer. And therein lies the debate we’ve been having. John just isn’t a dashing hero’s name for me. It’s one of the most common male names in the Western world, which is why ‘John Doe’ has become synonymous with an unknown person. It’s a filler name. Those seat fillers they get for award shows? All Johns. And while it started as a placeholder name, there was some reasoning behind it from my co-writer. John Glenn was the first American in space, and for our hero’s family would have been something of a legend, plus it fits the old fashioned, conservative background of our hero. Still, I maintained that eventually it had to go. And John and Jessica, it’s a bit too alliterative.

The problem is, dear reader, 60 thousand words into the book and the name’s rather grown on me as the character has. And although I threw a bunch of other names into the mix, Alex, Joe, Max, Tom, all of which my co-writer flatly vetoed, suddenly I can’t imagine him as anything else but John.

And there are lots of cool Johns, right? In real life and in fiction:

John Wayne

John F Kennedy

John Boyega

John Lennon

John McClane

John Rambo

John Shaft

Heck, even my Grandpa was called John (pictured above).

So, could you fall in love with a John or a Jessica? And if you are writing, how have you named your characters?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap