Category: literary names
By Kathleen McIntosh
Just as parents exhaust name books and websites searching for the name for their wee ones, so do we writers comb them too for not one or even just a handful of appellations. The prospect of naming an entire cast of characters can be overwhelming, and if perusing the SSA Top 1000 and countless other name lists isn’t your thing, here are a few methods to find the perfect character name. and hopefully minimizing the madness!
By Rebecca Renner
If you’re searching for a classy, smart name for your new little one, look no further than modern classic novels. The term “modern classic” refers to a novel that has been deemed–by literary critics, readers, or, more often than not, both–to be noteworthy in that it defines the time in which it was written, often elevating the mundane, the struggles of the common person, into the realm of myth. In other words, they’re meaningful, profound stories. What better place could there be to find inspiration for a meaningful baby name?
Despite using the word classic, I have tried to shy away from more classic or well-known names in making this list. So these names are more poetic and unusual and also strive for something a little different, so that some of the novels you may consider major modern classics have been omitted from this list, because their characters have more common, traditional names.
Estha– This exotic unisex name is short for Esthappen, the twin of Rahel Yuko in Arunhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Though some pretty earth-shaking and dark things happen to Estha in Roy’s novel, he grows to become a protective and rounded character. This would be a very unusual and distinctive name for a brother.
Theo – A more common diminutive for Theodore, Theo takes on new life when associated with Theo Dekker, the hero in Donna Tartt’s coming-of-age novel, The Goldfinch. Though you may be reluctant to name a child after this accidental art thief, keep in mind the depth and growth his character shows in this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Internationally popular, Theo now ranks at #354 in the US, 33 in England and Wales, and 19 in France.
Pelagia – This beautiful name belongs to the eponymous Corelli’s lover in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernière. Also the name of several early Christian saints, including the patron saint of actresses, Pelagia is a poetic name that is begging for new life. (In the film version, Penelope Cruz plays Pelagia as shown).
Orleanna – With its origin in the place name Orléans, a city in France that the American New Orleans inherited its name from, this elegant name belongs to the heroine of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Changed by the events of the novel, Orleanna becomes a Civil Rights activist, making her a worthy namesake.
Calliope – This name represents one of the most unique characters on this list. Calliope (aka Cal) Stephanides is the intersex protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides’s groundbreaking novel Middlesex. Cal goes through a lot in the novel, but in the end, she truly lives up to her namesake, the Greek muse of epic poetry, by being able to find beauty and meaning in life’s hardships. Calliope debuted in the US Top 1000 in 2016.
Werner & Marie–Laure – The young Nazi who changes to become a hero and the blind daughter of a Parisian locksmith respectively, Werner and Marie–Laure are the hero and heroine of Anthony Doerr’s much-celebrated Pulitzer-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. Tied to the poetic imagery of a cursed jewel and an elaborate locking mechanism built to look like a miniature city, these names bring with them a wonderful lyricism that makes them stand out.
Willem & Jude – Another couple with a star-crossed fate, Willem and Jude bring a note of poetic tragedy with their classical sound. Two of the main characters of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, Willem and Jude fall in love after years of friendship, and they finally find happiness in each other’s’ arms. Jude is becoming a popular middle name for girls.
Kellen – This main love interest from All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood isn’t your traditional knight in shining armor. He’s a tattooed biker, and he’s been on the wrong side of the law. And yet, he’s one of the most sincere, kind suitors I’ve read in a recent book. Though his love story is complicated and fraught, Kellen would make an excellent namesake for a rebellious but sweet boy.
Florens– In Toni Morrison’s novella A Mercy, the girl with the unusual but beautiful name Florens experiences heartache from the start. Bartered into servitude by her mother to pay their domineering owner’s debt, but years later, she experiences both love and loss, and she grows enough to become the narrator of the story.
Of course there are many other lovely and poetic names from modern literature– these only represent a few of my favorites. What would you add? Leave a comment with your favorite name from a contemporary novel.
Rebecca Renner, an MFA candidate at Stetson University, teaches American literature and creative writing in a chill Florida beach town. While not reading, writing fiction, or blogging on beckyrenner.com, Rebecca frolics with her dog Daisy Buchanan and travels.
One of the big recent baby name successes has been Ophelia. After nearly 60 years off the Top 1000, it reemerged in 2015 at Number 975, then jumped to 580 last year. Though it hasn’t yet beaten its peak from the turn of the 20th century, when it entered the Top 300, Ophelia ranks a stunning Number 15 among Nameberry users for the first half of 2017, so it’s almost certain to climb even higher in the U.S..
We get the appeal. It sounds unusual but graceful, it starts with the trendy letter O and it has a sterling literary pedigree, coined by Shakespeare himself.
But here’s the thing about that Shakespeare tie: In Hamlet, Ophelia is a central tragic victim, the girl driven to madness and suicide, but she doesn’t have much presence in the play. Shakespeare created dozens of strong, fascinating, brilliant female characters — but Ophelia isn’t one of them.
Yet today’s parents have decided that Ophelia‘s many positive qualities outweigh the grimness of her story. The same goes for Pandora, Abel and Persephone, all of which have started climbing up the charts.
So that’s our question: How much do you care about a name’s backstory? Are there any names you love because they have great stories behind them? Or have you ever rejected a name because of its history?
My favorite book is Jane Eyre, and I don’t think it’s an accident that its title is a name. Names are so central to my enjoyment of books: the names of the characters and of the authors, even the titles themselves. If a character has a wonderful name, I’m already halfway in love. And if the names in the book feel discordant — out of time or place or literally out of character — I lose confidence in the author. If he named the grandmother Jennifer and the little girl Edna with no explanation, I think, what other, harder stuff is he going to get wrong?
Names can affect our literary responses, but how about when a literary character affects how we feel about a name? When the little girl at the Plaza lends her charm to Eloise or when an enterprising urchin makes Sawyer sound smart?
That’s a whole different way of thinking about names and books, and one that’s perfectly valid in considering your answer to our question this week: What names do you love from books? You can take that to mean: What names have books made you fall in love with or What names do you love that have a literary connection? Or even, Which books have the best names or Do books influence how you feel about names at all?
With a spot atop Amazon’s bestseller list and Hulu’s faithful adaptation of the novel recently hitting the small screen, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is all anyone can talk about in 2017, so now is the perfect time to think about all the great baby names we can glean from this speculative-fiction masterpiece. Check out the literary baby names from The Handmaid’s Tale I’ve selected for you below.