What's in a name?

I love this website. It's one of my favorite writing research tools. Few things date a character so indelibly as their name. We all know that certain names become attached to certain eras and certain ages. We live now in the era of Jayden and Emily. Jazz babies lived in the age of Walter and Lillian. Times change. One might want to avoid the obvious first few choices, but about halfway down the site's top twenty list for any birth year, one can find a gem of a name that places a character effortlessly in time.

Though here's an interesting warning: audiences seem to prefer heroes and heroines with names popular in their own era – not in the era when those characters would actually have been born. Stephanie became a HUGE name in the 70s and 80s – remember Saturday Night Fever? But when the character Stephanie in that film would have been born, say in around 1960, the name barely cracked the top 100. Of course, popular characters and actors can catapult otherwise unpopular names to the top themselves. I read an article once that suggested the catalyst of the final switch from masculine to feminine of the name "Kim" came after Kim Novak became a star in 1950s Hitchcock films. Checking the SSA site... hey look, masculine Kim peaked in 1955, then pretty much dropped out of sight. Might be something to that theory.

So yes, you can completely ignore the actual popularity of a name, and create a wild sensation with something unique and different – or something already popular in your era but totally out of place for the actual character. But go forth with a warning. You can succeed ahead of the curve, or right on the curve, but don't ever wind up behind the curve. If you call the present day 30 year old protagonist's mother "Edna," you are waving a giant red flag. You are no longer writing a real person, but rather a character based on an elderly stereotype. Which is to say, not just the character is elderly – the stereotype is as well. Edna peaked in popularity in 1912. Moms in the 1950s may have been called Edna, but I don't want to see any 1950s moms in your present day script. Okay? (Unless you're writing a script about 1950s moms in the present day, and that's a whole other thing.)

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