May 15 2011 2:48pm

What’s in a Name?: The Importance of Names in Romance Novels

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.

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Landra Graf
1. Landra Graf
Names are definitely something that can attract or detract. They usually define character's for a reader and most often you can spot the villian a mile away. Walter and Bob are most definitely villians, dastardly so.

I guess unsual names in historicals throw me, but I expect them in fantasy and paranormal romance. Exotic names seem to be limited to fantasy, paranormal, or futuristic novels too.

If I saw Tayse in an Regency I would definitely peg the girl as foreign or gyspy.

Bottom line: Names do have a lot of influence in a story.
Landra Graf
2. Sue Quint
Absolutely names have an impact, not just on how others see us but how we see ourselves. Growing up with an unfashionable name can hinder self-image and thus impact the character. I went to school with a Trudy, but if she'd gone by Gertrude, I doubt she'd have been a popular girl.
Landra Graf
3. brontëgirl
Brontë knew the power of naming a character.
I always thought it interesting that Charlotte Brontë gave Jane Eyre her sister Emily's middle name.
In Shirley, her eponymous heroine, an orphan who inherited her estate and runs it herself, enjoys her name that in those days was considered masculine: "I am an esquire; Shirley Keeldar, Esquire, ought to be my style and title. They gave me a man's name; I hold a man's position: it is enough to inspire me with a touch of manhood; and when I see such people as that stately Anglo-Belgian -- that Gérard Moore before me, gravely talking to me of business, really I feel quite gentlemanlike" (Chapter II).
Brontë also named Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette, with intention, though she writes of the "subtlety of thought" that went into the naming: "I can hardly express what subtlety of thought made me decide upon giving her a cold name . . . A cold name she must have . . . partly on that of the 'fitness of things,' for she has about her an external coldness" (letter to William Smith Williams, qtd. in Fraser, Rebecca: The Brontës: Charlotte Brontë and Her Family, New York: Crown Publishers, 1988).
Landra Graf
4. Shannon Winslow
I cracked up when I read what you said about the name "Richard." I had no idea it was a rake's name, consciously, that is. Maybe I knew subconsciously because that's what I named the way-too-smooth fortune hunter in my novel. Ha ha!
Landra Graf
5. JacquiC
I agree that names are important. I just finished Mary Daughtridge's first book (SEALED with a Kiss) and the heroine's name is Pickett. I loved the book, but was totally distracted by the name, which seemed unusual enough to require an explanation. I don't think there was an explanation in the first book (unless I missed it somewhere), and the origin of the name was only explained in the second book by the heroine's best friend.
Alie V
6. ophelial
I love this post. I have a peeve sometimes when names in historical novels are completely off according to the time period. You really wouldn't meet a lot of heroines with 'hippie' type names in Regency England. I also can't read a book if the male character has a really effeminate name (for our time period) like Tracy, Leslie, etc.
Peggy Lawson
7. girliegrrrrl
I fully believe that names are important, both in fiction and in real life! Romance is so much more romantic if the names are exotic or sexy. If the name is too common you may conjure up images of some less appealing person that you know by that name, making it impossible to fully enjoy the fantasy. Romantic novels should be as unbelievable as possible simply because real life is not that exciting. As for real life, I have experienced the awkwardness of having a name that does not fit first-hand. I was named for my mother's best friend and have been told many times that I have an old lady name or that I don't look like a (name withheld). I have wished that like my very fortunate sister, I could have been given a more exotic name at birth. On that note, maybe it would be nice to see a sexy female with a less than sexy name in a romance novel, just to give those of us with "old lady names" a bit of hope! ;)
Francine Howarth
8. francinehvr
Hi, am new around here, so dipping toes. Any authors here? I'm into historicals and, contemporary novels so long as stereotypical characters are thin on the ground. Names in historicals often bug me. A recent historical excerpt caught my eye, the heroine's name India! As if, in 17th century England.

Hee hee, in my latest full-length historical the anti-hero is called William, so wrong impressions might occur for he's nothing like Prince William, he's more Sean Bean! Although lordly and man of honour to King & Country, he's cruel when it comes to his own family, though with good reason. ;)

Landra Graf
9. Anette
I didn't know either that Richard was the ever popular name for the cad... hm... now, there DO seem to be a lot of my books filled with "Richards", "Damon" and "Bancrofts" and rakes like that.
The only thing I wonder now... Why the heck did Stephenie Meyer call Bella's baby "Renesmee"??????!!!!!!! Gawd!!! What an AWFUL name! It sounds like a witch's name! Or even worse - a vodoo name!
Landra Graf
10. Alyssa Cole
I think Richard is often used as the go-to name for bad gys because the nickname is "Dick," which is a good descriptor for most of these characters.
Landra Graf
11. Elizabeth Ellen Carter
I always look up the meaning of names before naming characters.

In my upcoming historical, the villain's name is Drefan which is Saxon for 'trouble'.
Elizabeth Halliday
12. Ibbitts
You have a good point here. I hadn't thought about it much, but it now occurs to me that I have been put off in the past by some character's names - mostly those that seemed inappropriate for the time period, are culturally incorrect or were just too difficult to pronounce.
To take up some points brought forth by others:
I would not be bothered by a hero named Leslie in regency England, but I don't think I'd have the same reaction if the Leslie in question was the leader of a motorcycle gang in California in the 1950's.
I don't mind the names of J. R. Ward's characters at all, but I feel somwhat put off when other authors play the "unpronounceable name" game. (I wholeheartedly agree with Anette: Renesmee? Really?)
Then there are the authors who appear offended if you pronounce their character's name incorrectly. Note to Ms. Day: it is correct to pronounce Eva either E-va (Eva Marie Saint) or A-va (Eva Gabor). Don't be so huffy; a reader can't tell by looking at the printed word. Next time pick a name with a more standardized pronounciation.
These days you can name your characters just about anything, I guess. Except, maybe, even in modern Scotland, I don't think you could get away with "Bob" - he'd be a "Robbie" for sure!
Now, Charlie Davidson has an Uncle Bob, even though she calls him "Ubie" most of the time - and I've never once been put off by Uncle Bob. Is that the exception that proves the rule?
Lastly, there are the names that are mispronounced on purpose. It's not cute - or individualistic - it's just irritating when the spoken word doesn't match the printed one. I won't name any names here, but it's why I no longer listen to audiobooks.
Yes, character's names are important. I think most authors do an excellent job in choosing names. I've read thousands of books, and have been truly put off by only a handful!
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