I am far too tired to write up some of the excellent books from the last week of September, so instead I’m going to discuss a small but important problem some authors have when writing books: the names are all wrong.
Now, I don’t mean Christopher Pike’s desire to name every teenager Clyde, although that’s a problem too. What I’m talking about here–and I think this has been something I’ve noticed mostly or only with older male authors–is when authors give characters names that were popular in their own generation but not the one they’re writing about, dating the authors and sometimes taking the reader out of the story.
I mentioned this briefly when I was reading Thirteen, the horror collection from 1991. Say the average age of a character in the book was 16. That puts us at a birth year of 1975. Jennifers and Michaels ruled that year, and since I’m from around the same time, I can say with some assurance that Bobs were on their way out and Robs were totally in. And yet when you read Thirteen, you’ve got all these Sallys and Lindas, Bobs and Bills instead of Robs and Wills. Admittedly, ’75 was probably a borderline year for this changeover, but it was happening. It may seem easier with guys’ names, but there are still trends. Right now, I’m reading a book with a Herb in it, and the last time I did that was Christopher Pike, and even then it was like “Um, Herb?” The only Herb I know was my grandfather; I can’t remember the last time I met a Baby Herbert.
For some people this is a non-issue, but for me, consistent use of old-fashioned names means to me that the author didn’t do his prep work; that he’s seeing through his own lens and not the one he’s supposed to be writing about. I’m working right now with a book where the main character’s name is Jennifer; by all rights, she shouldn’t be a Jennifer, except that her name is part of how we’re meant to see her mother: a character who thinks she’s playing it safe, naming her kid the same thing all the kids in her classes were named. But times changed, and her mother didn’t think to keep up. This is something that will continue on through the book, a major conflict in part foreshadowed by something as simple as the character’s name.
Soon, “Herb” won’t be the old guy’s name anymore. It’ll cycle, as names do. We’re drifting away from our -aidens and over-spelled “unique” names right now and following the Julia Roberts-led trend of old-fashioned names, along with a lot of book and celeb names too. Lots of Giannas, lots of Bellas heading into kindergarten right now.
It’s not hard to follow the trends if you know people with children. If not…yearbooks? Websites too. We’re always taught that names are important–I still remember the first time a writing teacher pointed out Luke Skywalker’s obvious last name to me, after years of me having been used to it from growing up with it–and I think authors need to remember that when they’re writing. If you’re talking about the next generation, your generation’s names may not cut it. Keep an eye out.