by Deborah Elliott-Upton
In another column I mentioned a short story I was writing which deals with the throes of teenage puberty. My main character was a fourteen-year-old boy named Aidan, the most popular name for boys in 2007. Without exception, every reader didn’t just not identify with my protagonist, no one liked him at all. One even called him a sissy when he didn’t take a stand against the school bully. I changed his name to Jon. With no other changes to the manuscript, my main character became an instant underdog and hero. He found love and acceptance with a simple name change.
Does a name really make that much of a difference? Obviously it did to Archibald Leach, Marion Morrison and Sandra Zuck. We know them better as Cary Grant, John Wayne and Sandra Dee.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” — William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet”, II, ii.
What name would we choose for ourselves if we suddenly needed an alias? Would this be a name more suited to our character or has our character been shaped by the name bestowed on us by our parents? It’s debatable, but I think written characters need to fit their place on the page.
Sam Spade, Mike Hammer and James Bond are hard-hitting names, like the characterizations their creators developed. Would anyone think they may be wimpy? Not a chance. Would they be as tough if they were known as Sammy Spade, Mikey Hammer or Jimmy Bond? Probably not.
Only a woman with a hard consonant-ending like “Scarlett” fit the indulgent female who fought for Tara as much as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. The connotation of a man named Nero Wolfe immediately sends a sense of sophistication to my mind. A “Nero” would never do the legwork; leave that to everyman’s “Archie.”
My current work in progress – a mystery novel – has a prominent role for Mary’s husband’s ex-wife. More ditsy than devious, she factors in as a thorn in the side of my heroine. Wearing an air of “Mean Girls” toward Mary, I originally named her Beth. My writing group partners thought that name too tame and “nice.” I didn’t want the character to be evil, just spiteful at times and mostly living life without too many thoughts of consequences.
“She sounds like an Aspen,” one male writer said.
Everyone agreed, so Beth has been rechristened Aspen.
The public recognizes good writing no matter what name is on the cover, but using a pseudonym works for a lot of writers for differing reasons. Written early in his career, the hilarious No Score features a byline of Chip Harrison (aka Lawrence Block). When Stephen King saturated the market with horror stories, he resorted to publishing novels written as Richard Bachman. When the public seemed more open to male mystery writers writing about male protagonists, Doris Meredith wrote as D. R. Meredith.
In studying names, I discovered some interesting facts:
- People whose names begin with the letter J are 250% more likely to become millionaires compared to those with names beginning with the letter N. (J.K.Rowling, John Grisham and James North Patterson comes to mind.)
- Those named John, Peter or Katherine consistently earn more than Cody, Austin or Alexis.
- You are four times more likely to have a doctor whose name begins with I rather than O.
Would our lives improve if we changed our names? Or was Shakespeare right in saying our names do not matter?