Monday, April 28, 2008

Playing The Name Game

Let’s face it, names are important. A name gives a person individuality and uniqueness. It can tell that person’s ethnicity, sex, heritage, and geographical region. It can also symbolize many things (such as honor) and have different meanings (such as the strong one). In some cases, there are certain practices that accompany the giving of a name, and even the selecting of a name. There’s even a list out there of sexiest male and female names, and non-sexy names. Names can also reflect the changing time. Did you know that Christine and Paul topped the sexiest names list in the 1980s, but today, Sean/Shawn and Kelly/Kellie/Kelli have replaced them?

We know that names are important, but do we really understand its importance?

As a writer, we spend a great amount of time agonizing over names. Should we use our real name or come up with a pseudonym? How saleable is the name we’ll eventually settle on? Does it match the genre we write in? Where will it sit on the bookshelves? Will it be a memorable name? Is there already a published author (or famous person) already going by that name? Is it an easy to pronounce name?

Our name is one of our most powerful marketing tools. If chosen correctly, it can define in the reader’s eye who we are and what kind of books we write. A great example of this is Madeline Oh. What a fantastic name for an erotica romance author.

I once was adamant about getting a pen name – Mya Shelton. Ran that by my writer friends and the response was something to the effect of, “Shelton? It’s so common.” At the time, I thought, “What was wrong with common?” I wanted to be common. I wanted to blend in and not stand out. But my friends finally knocked some sense into me. Why try to blend in and be overlooked, when you can stand out and be unique? And with that, I began to fully embrace my name, Mai Christy Thao. It has a certain ring to it. It’s certainly unique. And it fits my sub-genre, historical fantasy paranormals. Besides, I’ve already built up name recognition and a brand with my real name. Why change it and start over?

But sometimes, uniqueness can be harmful, especially when it comes to naming the characters in our books. I once read a Regency set romance where the heroine’s name was something like Tianna. Every time I saw that name, it jarred me out of a story. Tianna? In early 1800 England as a proper lady aristocrat? It would have settled better with me if say the book had been set in Barbados around that time period, and her parents had been very fond of the locals. A lesson I took from this was don’t give your character a name for the mere sake of being unique.

Just as there are sexy names and unsexy names, there are also hero names and anti-hero names. Nicholas is one of the most commonly used hero names in a romance. I often hear agents and editors say, “No protagonist with the name Nick or Nicholas”. You don’t see Chuck too often as the hero. However, there’s a thin line between the differentiation of hero and anti-hero names. Damien, for example, is a name that sits on the border of hero and anti-hero.

Understanding the importance of a name and winning the name game may be the one thing that could make or break your story (and your career). Just think, what if Tom Cruise had opted to go by his real name, Thomas Mapother IV? Would Thomas Mapother have become as solid a household brand as Tom Cruise have become?


Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Great post! I spend days on picking just the right names for my characters. I'm like you; if a name doesn't ring true to the story or the time period it will jar me right out of the tale.

Evonne Wareham said...

Darn, you beat me to it - I've been toying with the idea for a name post! Choices are intriguing. Did you know, for example, that in the first draft of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, Maxim was called Henry? Doesn't have the same ring to it.
And Madeleine Oh is Brit author Rosemary Laurey - another great choice.

Savanna Kougar said...

The name game, it is fascinating. I'm very, very particular about what I name my heroine and hero. And nearly as exacting for the other characters, expecially the bad guys.
Great post, Mai. And your name is perfect as an author name. It does have that magic ring to it.

Mai Christy Thao said...

Thanks, Savanna!