When I chose the name Claire for one of the protagonists of my new novel, The Obituary Writer, I thought I’d found the perfect name for a woman living in 1961. To me, Claire sounded sophisticated without seeming snobby; feminine but not girlish; and although not unusual a name, it was also not common.
So imagine my surprise when I started to read another novel partially set in the early 1960s, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, and found a protagonist named Claire. The feeling was similar to the day I showed up at a Mommy group with my baby son Sam and every other boy there was also named Sam.
After I got over discovering this other literary Claire, I wondered if Jess Walter and I were somehow tapping into a hot new name trend. But no. Claire has been solidly in the Top 100 girl names for a decade, and among the U.S. Top 1000 since they started keeping records in 1880.
Lots of parents seem to have been influenced by the romantic hero of Nicholas Sparks’ novel-turned-blockbuster-movie The Notebook to name their sons Noah. In the 1980s—two decades before The Notebook—Noah’s popularity held steady in the 200s and only made a big leap upward in the late 1990s when the book was first published, jumping again in 2004 after the movie came out. By 2011, Noah had moved all way up to the fifth most popular boys’ name.
But sometimes, it works the other way around, with real life influencing the names of characters. Tiffany, for instance, was most popular in the early 1980s, around the time Jennifer Lawrence’s character in The Silver Linings Playbook, which was a novel before it became a hit movie, would have been born.
Other names get a boost from bestselling books and then a further one from celebrity culture. Popular Olivia’s quieter relative Olive teetered on the brink of invisibility in 2007, when it was ranked 999. Then at the end of that year, Sasha Baron Cohen and Isla Fisher named their daughter Olive, and the next year, Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge was published and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Together, these events propelled Olive to her present status at number 148.
Like parents, authors are sometimes influenced by name trends they may not be conscious of. In The Obituary Writer, Claire shares space with a second protagonist named Vivien. Vivien’s story takes place in 1919, and I wanted a name that reflected that time without being too common, then or now. But since I’ve finished The Obituary Writer, I’ve noticed that while Vivien, out of fashion for almost eighty years, may not be included among the Top 1000 girls’ names under that spelling, it now ranks an impressive 154 under its Vivian spelling and 383 spelled Vivienne, the French form used for their daughter a few years ago by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
I don’t know about you, but for me the perfect names for both characters and children are different but not weird, and carry a connotation of strength or beauty or grace. Perhaps that’s why novels can offer up so much inspiration when we’re trying to name our babies. We watch their characters charm and love and triumph over adversity, the very things we hope for our children.