Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Cult - SSA and Behind the Name

Posted by LD Keach on Thursday, May 6, 2010

When I was fourteen, I often wrote about characters named Raven Silverstone and Antonella St. Claire and Mahogany Merlot. My only excuse is, well…I was fourteen. (And I probably read too many trashy romance novels. Ah, the foibles of youth before internet porn was readily accessible…)

But I’m sure I’m not the only one with a history of bad character naming decisions. Picking names for characters can be a harrowing trial for any writer, with lots of pitfalls and booby traps along the way. (Like boobies named Raven.) And nothing ruins a nice, gory depiction of a chainsaw wielding maniac than finding out his name is D’artagnan Finklebarrow or something.

The trouble is, while ridiculous names are found in real life all the time, in fiction, they detract from the narrative. A ridiculous name can startle a reader out of their suspension of disbelief as good as any plot hole or clumsily-worded string of dialogue. So, unless one writes like Douglas Adams and Elmore Leonard, one reasonable-sounding name is worth twice as many Anton-Silver Raven-Butts.

So, what’s a writer supposed to call their chainsaw wielding maniac? One tool I’ve been thoroughly addicted to is the Social Security Administration’s Most Popular Baby Name website. What you find here is a search engine database of the most popular names for pretty much any decade you can think of before 1879.

Need a reasonable-sounding teenage girl’s name? Try the top 20 results for 1995. Need a crabby old lady name? Top 50 results for 1942. Need a time-traveling, liver-sucking madman? Top 100 results for 1900. The possibilities are endless.

And, the results achieved on the SSA’s Most Popular Baby Name website aren’t necessarily Anglo-centric. America’s such a melting pot that lots of names of different ethnicities can be found if one wants to make their teenage girl descended from Columbian grandparents, or give their liver-sucking madman a French great aunt.

Of course, for added depth of linage, a good surname is needed, and many can be found at Behind the Name.com, sorted by nationality, country, and level of popularity. Everything from Scandinavian to Sikh, Catalan to Chinese; this site is a wealth of surname knowledge, and many a time I’ve decided to make a character Catalan just so I can incorporate that awesome name.

The best part is; these are all real names, used by real people, that are real common. And common names really put a dose of reality into one’s characters, letting the reader settle into that nice state of illusion where they really believe the chainsaw maniac’s about to bust through their door to eat their liver. Because its much less comedic to be murdered by a Jack or a Susan. Leave the Fincklebutts for the trashy romance novels.

Plus, these websites are much more handy than buying a pile of baby-naming books at the local Barnes and Noble. And they raise fewer eyebrows. Because try being a fourteen-year-old who has to explain to your Mom why you’re reading The Best Baby Name Book in The Whole World in the middle of dinner. It’s a pretty irritating conversation, lemme tell ya.

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