William Shakespeare famously wrote:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.”
But while it’s true that a rose would smell as sweet no matter what it was called, in a romance novel, character names do matter in a very big way.
Just one or two short words can telegraph not only a character’s gender but also his or her nationality, ethnicity, social stratum, and (sometimes) religion, and can often convey attitude and personality.
For example, in Cathy Cash Spellman’s epic Paint the Wind, heroine Fancy is involved in a love triangle with two brothers, Hart and Chance. You may never even have heard of the book, but I promise that you now understand everything you need to about all three characters.
It’s not necessary to read a word of the novels in which they appear to know that Suzanne Collins's Katniss and Peeta cannot possibly occupy the same universe as Jane and Rochester. And if Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice were not the story of the tempestuous courtship of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, but rather were the tale—set in the same era and the same neighborhood—of the burgeoning love between Kathleen O’Shaughnessy and Zvi Feinberg or between Marie-Josèphe Desaulniers and Jens Mikkelsen, we the readers would know from the very first paragraph that this was going to be a very different kind of a story. An extremely interesting story, to be sure—but different nevertheless.
In a romance novel, the heroine tends to either have a euphonious name (names that end in “a” are common) or a descriptive one. For example, Jane Eyre’s name—short, blunt, and plain—echoes her personality and even her appearance (she’s described in several places as short and slight). It never would have occurred to Charlotte Brontë to name her eponymous heroine, say, “Isabella.”
In Laura Leone’s The Black Sheep, the heroine, a rock star, goes by Gingie (which to my mind gives unfortunate overtones of “gingivitis,” but whatever), but her real name is Virginia. I will give you three guesses as to why this name is appropriate for her, and you probably won’t need the last two. And Josephine March, of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women fame, goes by Jo, a masculine nickname that underscores her tomboy nature.
A hero, on the other hand, needs a name that suggests youth, masculinity, and usually wealth (even when the character himself is poor). He needs to have a name that we readers can envision ourselves screaming in the heat of passion; you don’t encounter a lot of romantic heroes named Walter, Horace, or Seymour. While there are some romantic heroes called John and a few called Tom, there aren’t very many called Bob, for whatever reason. And Richard is indisputably a rake’s name. In books, at least 75 percent of the time “Richard” = TROUBLE. I have no idea why this is, but it’s absolutely true.
Some authors obviously have a lot of fun naming their characters. For example, most of J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brothers have very ominous-sounding monikers—Rhage, Tohrment, and Vishous, among others. But wait! Their names also carry clues to their personalities and story arcs: Rhage has anger management issues, love usually hurts for S&M aficionado Vishous (and his partners), and Tohrment…well, he’s tormented. Also, I can’t help but suspect that when Stephenie Meyer named her gawky, awkward, depressive teen heroine “Bella Swan,” she was expressing a more slyly subversive sense of humor than most people are willing to give her credit for.
While a well-named hero or heroine can help draw the reader into a story, an anachronistic or otherwise weird or inappropriate name can have the opposite effect. Recently, on this very site, I learned about a book set in Texas in the 1870s in which the heroine’s name is…Bailee. Now, if this novel had been set in the 1970s, I wouldn’t have given “Bailee” a second thought. There’s nothing wrong with the name; it’s quite adorable, actually. But in the nineteenth century, there just weren’t that many women, in Texas or anywhere else, named Bailee. My suspension of disbelief is already shattered, and I haven’t even opened the book yet. (And no fair playing the “Well, she’s an unusual woman, so of course she has an unusual name” card. “Bailee” only works in that context if her parents were time travelers.)
Sharon Shinn’s lovely Mystic and Rider succeeds in spite of the fact that the hero is named “Tayse”—when I first read it, I was all “Tayse? Seriously? Like a taser?” (Tayse’s love interest is Senneth, a name that actually sounds kind of cool.) And although I enjoyed J.R. Ward’s Lover Unleashed a great deal, I have to confess that the hero’s name—MANuel MANello—gave me giggle fits, consistently, from the first page to the last. (I MANaged to get around that, obviously.)
So what do you think? Are you turned off by “Tayse”? Was your great-great grandmother named “Bailee?” Does it matter to you what your protagonist is called? What’s in a name?
Kate Nagy is Editor-at-Large of Geek Speak Magazine.