Do Characters’ Names Influence Baby Names, or Vice Versa?

Novelist Ann Hood, bestselling author of The Knitting Circle and The Red Threadexplores the interplay between naming children and naming the characters in her newest book, The Obituary Writer

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.

Unless, I thought, characters’ names in novels influence baby names, especially if those books are made into movies ala Love Story and its infamous influence on the popularity of Jennifer?

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 NotebookNoah’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.

For more about Ann Hood and her new novel The Obituary Writer, visit her website.

Claire necklace available on Etsy from E. Ria Designs.

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19 Responses to “Do Characters’ Names Influence Baby Names, or Vice Versa?”

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sarahmezz Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 12:00 am

I’d suggest the character from the film Little Miss Sunshine also helped increase the popularity of Olive. For the most part, I think literature and films influence baby names more than the other way around.

Elenath Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 1:38 am

I think it depends. Harry has been a solid name before Harry Potter was released and I don’t think the books made more/less popular. Hermione on the other hand may have become more popular because of the books. I think it all depends on the book, the name itself and the (non) existing popularity of the name.

Elenath Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 1:40 am

I also think the thing that makes a name really popular is not a celebrity, a book or a film but hearing that particular name regularly around us. Hearing other people use it for their children makes a previously unusable name usable.

bwithane Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 6:12 am

I definitely agree with this. Lux is in the middle spot a lot recently because of The Virgin Suicides. Gray/Grey is on the rise for both boys and girls as is Anastasia due to the popularity of the 50 shades trilogy. I think I am drawn to characters names because I love names and it is refreshing to see what characters names are in books because it opens the door for more creative names and broader name choices. Reading it over and over makes it more familiar as a real name for a real child.

janetm Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 6:14 am

Probably worth mentioning that the Claire in Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins is from the part of the book set in the present day, not the sixties, and the character is in her twenties or early thirties. I think of Claire as timeless. Great classic name.

ejs82 Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 6:55 am

Honestly, I would roll my eyes if I read a current book set in the 60s with the protaganist named Claire. I love it when period books or shows take a name that sounds dated and staid to us and remind us that it used to be a vibrant choice. For example, Joan on Mad Men- was any name less sexy than Joan until she came around? I also love that there’s a tragically sympathetic Ethel on Downton Abbey. It’s an unattractive name (in my opinion), but it grounds the show more firmly in its time period.

Aurra Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 7:23 am

I do believe that character names influence names. Just look at ‘Splash’ and Madison. However, I think the feeling from that was just ‘Oh, that’s an interesting name!’ than relating to the character, but nonetheless, Madison dominated for two decades.
On the other side of the spectrum, I doubt Katniss will ever hit the top 1000. It wasn’t a name before The Hunger Games hit, and it is too strongly associated with it.
But books do influence names, and I put my money that with the rising dystopian novel Divergent that the main character’s name Beatrice nn Tris is coming to more girls near you. It just isn’t because of the book, but also because of the 100 Year Rule.

I think that baby names are influenced by books/movies when:
– The name is already rising.
– The name is a real name.
– The name fits with popular trends

HerMajesty Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 7:27 am

I know that I have gotten some of the names I like out of books, but I normally don’t read one if the names of the main characters sound boring, it dosen’t mean they are, but that is how I persieve it.
And I have to agree with ejs82, books and movies with outdated names by todays standerds do help enforce the time period a lot better than a bunch of names popular then, that are still/are popular now.

LadyCap Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 8:48 am

As much as most of us may not want to admit it, Stephanie Meyer has decent taste in names and I see names like Jasper and Esme and Emmett showing up more and more (Isabella and Jacob were already on the rise when she made them lead characters). I know many people don’t want to think they’re naming their children after the Twilight books, but I do see a connection. Admittedly, Esme made my list and I noticed it first in the books (though I think I’d tell my kid that I heard it on Nameberry 🙂

LexieM Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 10:11 am

I agree with @ejs82 some classics like Elizabeth Bennet will remain classics no matter what time period she were to live in but I think that if I were to write a novel set in the past I would look for a name that was popular at the time but not so much anymore. Wouldn’t it be weird to write a book squarely set in the early 80s and not have your character at least have a friend whose name is Jennifer?
Maybe it’s because we are all name lovers and would relish seeing more Ethel’s and Getrudes in popular literature and movies to denote their lives in a particular time period. (Especially since they are names few of us would consider using for our own children).
Names like Claire or Sarah just seem like a safe choice to us, but I wonder if the simplicity and familiarity of those names are important for non-name nerd readers who would find it much more difficult to identify with an outdated grandma-chique named character than we would.

sparrowfinch Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 11:17 am

To me, they both affect each other. Naming trends dictate what names sound good to our ears as a whole culture, including authors and movie makers. Narrative-writers choose names that sound likable and fresh and stylish at the time and then all their viewers/readers agree which bumps the name extra.

tori101 Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 1:50 pm

They affect each other defiantly! I mean Olive would still be hiding in the shadows if it wasn’t for the over exposure of the name with Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Easy A and Little Miss Sunshine 🙂

jamee29 Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 5:12 pm

I don’t let character names influence my opinion at all. If I love a name it doesn’t matter if it has a difficult character with the name. ie. Scarlett, Belle, Francine, Katniss, or Cashmere…they still have my heart.

nat108 Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 6:41 pm

Olive definitely got it’s boost from Little Miss Sunshine. The movie was huge. Isla Fisher’s daughter was born a year after the movie and that book came out 2 years after the movie. Olive Hoover made that name popular.

MoonlightSonata26 Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 7:02 pm

I think it depends on if the name is really popular and on the rise when they right the book. Or if the book was really REALLY good and people want their kids to be like a character. Hmm, this is really interesting!

MeleriHaf Says:

March 14th, 2013 at 8:16 pm

I like it when authors do some research and find a name that would have been popular (or at least not horribly unusual) when the character would have been born. For example, since 2011, I have noticed a lot of new books with the main character, usually in her 20s or 30s, being named Ava. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ava wasn’t really on the radar. Sure, it was used occasionally, but I in my early 30s, and I have only met one Ava my age ever. No, characters don’t all have to be named Jennifer and Jessica, but it feels unrealistic when people use the top 10 names of today for names of people born years ago.

dixiegirl02 Says:

March 18th, 2013 at 8:51 am

I agree with MeleriHaf. That bugs me too.

jc54 Says:

March 24th, 2013 at 9:36 am

Yes, to some degree. Like I couldn’t ever use Sophia because of the old lady on the Golden Girls.

Names from the Book You’re Reading! – Baby Name Blog – Nameberry Says:

February 4th, 2016 at 1:08 am

[…] I’ve been hearing a lot of in fiction recently as in life, maybe because it means life?  Ann Hood recently wrote for us about using it in her novel The Obituary […]

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