This week, I've dealt with a lot of names. I helped out with a dance audition, and got to see a hundred little girls and the names their parents chose for them. I've also been doing an archiving project at work, which involves going through A LOT of charts (over 1000 of them, so far, with probably another 10-15k before it's finished), and entering patient names into a database. I've seen a lot of names.
It's interesting to see how trends have changed. The older generations (think 70-80 years ago) have very similar names throughout – lots of Elizabeths and Roberts and Johns. As people get younger, there's more variety in names, especially starting around the 1980's. That's not to say that there hasn't been anyone named Elizabeth born since then, but that it's less common. You're also more likely to encounter an Elisabeth, or a Lissabeth, or Lizbet.
And then there are the recent names. Wow. At the auditions this weekend, I met the following little girls: Webhe (pronounced "Webby"), Carter, Murray, McKay, Shamaka, and Desma. Really?? Why would you name a little GIRL "Murray"? That just seems mean!
I don't know if other people feel the same way, but I'm sensitive to names and what they can say about a person before you even look at them. A name can set up an expectation, and sometimes, that can be problematic. Honestly, when I saw "Carter" and "Murray," I did not expect to look up and see sweet little girls.
Even minor variations on a name can elicit different responses. Look at my name: Danielle. Depending on where I am, who I'm dealing with, and the image I'm trying to present, I use different variations on my name. You get different impressions with Danielle, Danie, Dan, Dani, and Elle, no?
I've currently got four different baby name books sitting on my reference shelf, and I also have Gary Gygax's Book of Extraordinary Names nearby. When I'm ready to sit down and write, I need to have my characters named. Once a character has a name, I can figure out who they really are. For example, in HEA, my MC was Princess Martha Louise, and her mother was Queen Alumedia. The contrast in the names was part of what drove their relationship, and the plainness of the princess's name was an integral part of her personality and how she saw herself. The queen, on the other hand, had hated her unique name, and tried to spare her daughter some torment by going to the opposite end of the spectrum when she named the princess.
My heroes tend to have 'manly' names, and my heroines tend to be 'girly' – while I don't mind the idea of gender-neutral names, especially in sci-fi/fantasy settings, I feel more comfortable writing romance or YA where you can figure out whether you're dealing with a boy or girl right away. At the same time, I have written my share of stories with characters with unique names. For me, it really depends on the personality of the character.
So what's in a name? A whole heck of a lot!