More about Character Names

I said there’d be more, didn’t I?
Another pitfall that often befalls writers when they begin giving names to their characters is what I call the Name Out of Its Time.
Case in point; I recently read descriptions of two romance novels, both set in the Wild West. In one, the heroine was named Brianna. In the other, her name was Courtney. It doesn’t take a look at the name popularity lists on the Social Security Administration’s website to see the trouble here, does it? I won’t say it would be totally unheard of for a woman of that era to be named Brianna or Courtney, but I would have to say it’s highly unlikely.
Why do authors do this? I’d guess the main reason is simple ignorance, or perhaps the editor just didn’t catch it. But could other factors be at work? Could an author know perfectly well that the names she’s chosen are out of their time? Maybe she thought more “period” names like Mary, Eliza or Fannie just didn’t sound “romantic” enough. I think most people would agree that Courtney gives off quite a different vibe than Fannie, even if, way back in 1870’s Dodge City, Fannie would have been considered a fairly glamorous moniker, well-suited to a glamorous belle of the ball.
Another, less common problem is Names Which Do Not Match The Stated Ethnicity or Culture of the Character. As I said, this is less common, because most authors and editors know they can’t really get away with naming a medieval knight Cody, or an Old Order Amish woman Crystal. But it does happen occasionally, and even happens to the very best authors.
I hate to criticize Stephen King, because he may be my all-time favorite author, but in his otherwise excellent “From a Buick 8” he made a lulu of a boo-boo. One of his most endearing characters in that book is a groundskeeper for a police barracks in Pennsylvania. The groundskeeper is clearly described as Swedish and his accent is even written out, and compared to Lawrence Welk’s accent.
But here’s the problem: this guy’s name is given as Arky Arkanian. Not Axel Lundgren or Sven Olafson. If I had to guess I would guess that Arkanian is an Armenian name. Sorry, Steve, but you goofed that time. I only say it because I love you and don’t want you to make that mistake again.
As always, I welcome comments, either agreeing or disagreeing with my opinions. I’m sure all of us have felt that little bit of dissonance that happens when we run up against a misplaced name in our reading. I’d love to hear about others’ experiences with this phenomenon, if only so that I’ll know I’m not crazy.

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6 Responses to “More about Character Names”

  1. Antoine Says:

    Best-named dog in literature: Montmorency, in Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat.”

    • ghostscribe Says:

      It’s kind of a mouthful fora dog though, isn’t it? I suppose they called him Monty for short?

      • Antoine Says:

        Ah! But the multisyllables of a dog named Montmorency play humorously off the monosyllabic three men in the boat—the named George and Harris, and the authorial, first-person “I.”

      • ghostscribe Says:

        I just have a hard time picturing somebody saying “Montmorency, leave that cat alone!” or “c’mon, Montmorency, wanna go for a walk?”

      • Antoine Says:

        Of Montmorency, the author writes, “To hang around a stable, and collect a gang of the most disreputable dogs to be found in the town, and lead them out to march round the slums to fight other disreputable dogs, is Montmorency’s idea of ‘life’.” This is just after Jerome writes of him, “To look at Montmorency you would imagine that he was an angel sent upon the earth, for some reason withheld from mankind, in the shape of a small fox-terrier.”

        Montmorency thus was apparently named before his lifestyle became apparent. And thus the humor of the name playing against type.

      • ghostscribe Says:

        I’m glad he isn’t my dog then. 🙂

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