What’s in Characters’ Names?

DSC00814How do writers choose their characters’ names? The question came up at a writers’ group and made me think. A large part of it is intuition, but there are resources to back that up and to provide inspiration.

Part of the art of naming involves knowing the region and how names have changed over time. For example, Emma is a popular name today throughout Europe and North America. Yet in 1976, Emma was decidedly old and uncool. Your great-grannie might be “Emma.” Now it’s young and popular again.

Names vary by region, too. In Scotland in 2015, Jack and Oliver were the two most popular names for baby boys. In Canada, it was Aiden and Jacob. In the U.S. the same year, Noah and Liam topped the list. Jack came in at number 40, although Jackson – which could be shortened to Jack – was number 17. In German, Ben was most popular. In Spain, it was Santiago. In Sweden it was William, followed by Lucas!

For girls, Emma or Emily (which I consider a variant) seems to be the most popular name in Europe and North America, hands down. Emily and Sophie were the top baby names in Scotland. In the US, Emma and Sophia, in the number 1 and 3 spots and Emma and Emily in Canada. Emma took the Number 1 spot in Germany, too, according unofficial chronicler Nameberry.com In Spain, the top choice was Sofia, though Emma was number 5. In Sweden, the top name is Elsa – what is it about “E” names? – Emma was number 30.
I don’t know why the girls’ names are so similar in the Western world and the boys’ names so varied.

I do know that writers seeking names appropriate for specific ethnicities and years of birth have a treasure trove of options, all readily available through the Internet. Type in “top baby names”, (year) and (nationality) and see what pops up.

I found one of my favorite character names through a chance meeting with a family in Canada. Their daughter’s name was Prairie. Years later I remembered and used that name when I wrote “Perspective,” a novel about a young female photographer in Canada. More compliments have come in regarding the character’s name than any other element of the book!

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