Friday, September 12, 2014

Whatever happened to Mary and Ben?

There's been a trend in YA books in the last ten years toward main characters with unique or distinctive names. Think of Katniss, Blue, Tris and dozens of others I could list off from the YA best seller lists. I read quite a bit, most of it YA, but other genres as well, and I haven't noticed that particular trend being as prevalent outside children's literature.

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With the exception of Speculative Fiction, where unique names have always been the norm, the tendency toward unusual names feels... well, unusual. Whatever happened to Mary and Ben? When did regular, everyday names become pariahs in kid lit?

While I enjoy the occasional unique name, I have to admit I quite often roll my eyes at the crazy appellations many writers are giving their characters. Too often I feel like an author chooses a unique name to make their character stand out, to scream at the top of their lungs "Look at me! I'm a special snowflake!" But the best characters are unique not because of their names, but because of who they are, how they think and what they do. All the tiny things that bring a character to life should add up to a uniqueness that can't be conferred by name alone.

If you examine most YA books you'll find that the plague of unique names is mostly confined to main characters and their side-kicks. Secondary characters are the Bobs and Nancys of the world; ordinary, plain and entirely forgettable.

Interestingly, James Dashner's The Maze Runner, which has quickly gained even more popularity in light of the recent Hollywood movie release, flips that trend on its head. The two main characters, Thomas and Teresa, have perfectly ordinary names while the rest of the children in the Glade have strange names like Alby and Newt. Thomas and Teresa, despite their ordinary names, are the most unique characters based on their personalities and abilities.

Would Tris and Four, from Veronica Roth's Divergent series, have been less likable and memorable if they'd been named Kate and Michael? I think we'd remember them no matter what they were named, because of how beautifully Roth brought her characters to life.

I still love Maggie Steifvater's Blue, from The Raven Boys, even though her name is arguably a bit silly. Because I fell in love with the character, her name suits her now and I couldn't see her being called anything else. But I'd feel that way if she'd been called Stella or Bethany because it's the character I'm in love with, not her name.

Using regular names in kid's lit can have bonuses. Kids may relate more to a character that shares their name or the name of someone they know. Would Harry Potter have been as beloved if he'd been named Orion? Probably. But I'll be a lot of little boys named Harry are ridiculously thrilled to share a name with the world's most famous boy wizard.

I'm not saying writers should never use unique names, but ask yourself, before you do, why you've chosen that name? Is it to make your character stand out? If that's the only reason, re-think it because you need to be making your characters stand out in many, many different ways. Give them a unique world view, a descriptive quirk that is all their own. Give them a voice that blows the socks of readers and makes them completely unforgettable. Make them brave. Make them cowardly. Make them memorable. But do it with everything aside from their name, and then, when you're done, name them whatever the heck you'd like.

One last note - I have to admit that my first novel had a main character named Kit (short for Kristen, but still a bit unusual) and my second novel follows a small-town girl named Delaney. I didn't consciously choose unusual names for either of those characters, that's just how they popped into my head. Sometimes a character comes to me with a name already firmly attached and sometimes I play with their names until I find one that fits. Del and Kit were so attached to the names they arrived with, I couldn't make myself change them later. Hopefully they are unique enough on their own that their names aren't a distraction.

My next three books are already mapped out and the main characters names, for now, are Max, Emily & Abby. I deliberately chose common names for each because ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

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