The Writing Life: Gendered Names

The Writing Life BannerWelcome to my weekly feature, wherein I discuss writing style of authors, elements of books that are particularly interesting to me, and at times my own writing escapades as I venture into the writing process of my fourth novel. And, as a researching and always-learning aspiring author, I want to hear your opinions on these bits and pieces that make up our beloved paperbacks.

Most of the time I find that in reviews we talk about the feels or the romance or the plot, but here I want to get to the nitty gritty of syntax and devices and whatnot. Mafi’s similes and metaphors? Sanderson’s world building? McGarry’s ability to write three books with the same romantic trope and yet all three books are freaking fantastic? All of that, and more!

So without further adieu, this inaugural topic will be… *drumroll*

Naming Characters: Male, Female, or Unisex?

I’ll give you a background on why this topic came up: I have this character from my third novel that I’ve absolutely fallen in love with. I never finished that third book, yet I still want to give life to him and make sure he’s present somehow in my writing, because I just love him. Plus, I love his name. It suits him so well, and – guess what? It’s a name generally associated with girls: Blair. But my favorite baby naming website (we all know that those aren’t for parents – they’re for writers) says it actually was fairly popular as a boys’ name in the early 1900s, so there’s that.

So now I have a question for you: how do you feel about gender lines with names? Do you prefer boys to have decidedly masculine names like Thomas and Edward and Ryan and girls with clearly feminine names like Jessica and Elizabeth and Cassandra? Or do you like names like Blair and Charlie and Tyler, where they technically can go either way and be classified as Unisex?

For me it all depends on a character. I pick names based on personalities. Of course, names in real life hardly ever have a say in our characteristics, but in fiction names hold a lot of power in giving clues about a character’s traits. I really like Blair’s name because it fits his gentler personality – he’s not weak, just a bit softer around the edges.

Opinion time! Do you like boy names for boys and girl names for girls, or are you flexible? Do you care about names at all? 

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41 thoughts on “The Writing Life: Gendered Names

  1. Personally, I do not mind if the name is unisex. It is what you mentioned, the characters attributes are mostly what defines a name in my mind. I find that whether the character is male or female, what actually attracts me in their name is how original it is. It seems like nowaday all characters have very common names, I like names that stand out, I don’t want to read about 2000 different girls, all of whom will be names Mary. But as far gender, I do not think it should define the name.

    • I totally agree – I can’t stand bland, common names. I like strong names like Matthew or James, but that’s about as far as it goes. I think people are so unique and individual, and they need to have the names to go with it!

  2. I quite like it when characters have unisex names, as long as they suit the personality of the character. It might just be a nickname, but I still find I like it more. Might have something to do with my reading Elfquest at an early age, and weren’t entirely sure if certain characters were female or male (also a lot due to their traits) as certain clues got lost in the translation – and I might’ve wanted for some of the stonger characters to be female, so I didn’t want to know. Mind you, I was very young at the time, and characters I didn’t think much of then have really come into their own since.

  3. I’m so flexible (well, my mind is XD). I definitely agree with what you said about personalities deciding character names. I know that we grow up with our names ans grow into our characters, but with writing a character we get to CONTROL EVERYTHING. And we get to decide. Usually, I’ve written some kind of thing before I have to decide on names, so i already know what their essential character is going to be like and then I choose a name that I think suits their personality, and what’s going to happen in the plot. 😀
    I love all your names, they’re gorgeous. ❤

  4. Like you, I think the name has to fit the character. Lots of times I start writing with a nameless character, and eventually the name just comes to me. So I go with it.

    • I can see how they would be tricky, when a character is maybe told from first person? Since it’s not using the he/she pronouns and you have to rely on the narrator’s voice to determine gender.

  5. I suppose that for me it depends on the character, like you said. When reading, it doesn’t matter AS much as when I’m actually writing. Then, I agonize over getting the perfect name. But unisex names are fine (if they fit). In my NaNo last year, my main character was named January. A really classic girls name wouldn’t have worked for her.

    Oh, and I am so excited about this feature, you couldn’t guess! I’m an author as well (I would say “aspiring,” but I heard somewhere that if you put words down on paper, you ARE an author, whether you’re published or not). I love seeing other literary blogs that deal with both sides of books – reading them AND writing them. Woo hoo! 🙂

    • Ohhh January is such a unique name – I’d really love to see what kind of character she is!

      I’m so glad you like the feature! And I totally agree 😉 Anyone who’s written a book, published or not, should be considered an author!

  6. For me, it’s like you said, it depends on the character’s personality. I used the name August for a girl in one of my previous works but in Water for Elephants the ringmaster’s name is August. It just depends for me on the personality and how it flows.

    Great topic! 🙂

  7. It completely depends on the character that I’m crafting. I usually take setting, the character’s mannerisms, their interactions with others, the vibe they give off, etc into account when choosing a name. (And you are so right, baby name websites are totally set up for us writers)

  8. Interesting post! I have no issues with names at all unless they are some weird made up word. Although I do have to say I do feel bad for boys in real like named Sharon and Tracy, I cringe for them every time. Blair is a cool name for girls or boys.

    • Ach! Names that are thrown together just to be “unique” or “special” are the worst. You can always tell when an author is really pushing for the “special snowflake” vibe. Okay – naming a guy Sharon or Tracy is too far for me. I’ll stick to the unisex!

  9. I’m with you, it’s all about what fits the character. Now, if I ever birth children, I will probably give my boys traditionally boy names and my girls traditionally girl names. But my characters? Anything goes! I have definitely crossed the gender lines for character names before and I doubt I’ll stop anytime soon. As long as it’s not too extreme, like a girl named William or a guy named Elizabeth, I have a pretty open mind with character’s names! I think Blair sounds like it could be a good name for a guy character.

    And in case you haven’t discovered it yet, namenerds.com is a super fun name website/resource! 🙂

  10. While I do love very feminine names on girls and boyish names for boys, I agree– it depends on the character. For example, in the story I am writing (I’m writing right alongside you!), there’s a female character (whom I adore) that has a personality that doesn’t quite match up with any of the feminine names I can come up with, so a more neutral name like Jordan fits her. On the other hand, her best friend (the main character) is completely girly and has a personality that matches nicely up with the name Lacie…

    And as for my male characters, I’m just aiming for two names that sound nice together 😛 So I guess that names have to match up with the character and the characters that the character interacts with. Oh, and I think that Blair is a really nice name for a boy, especially one with a gentler personality!

  11. For me, when naming my characters, I look at personality and my preference. Imagine I want to make a hateful character, I put a mean girl’s name like Brittany. At least one I don’t like.
    Unisex names are fine with me except if its popular. I’m not one for popular names since they attach a sort of stereotype to them.

    I also don’t use common names and tend to steer towards unique and unheard words. I’m an oddball LOL

    P. S. I like the name Hunter though 😉

    • I’m with you – Brittany immediately makes me think of a mean girl. Which isn’t true in real life, since the Brittany I know is the sweetest person ever! But in fiction names hold more stereotypes I think.

      And I’m glad you like Hunter’s name 😉 He gave me grief too! Though I think Tegan was worse…

  12. Wait…what?! You’ve written THREE novels? And you’re working on a fourth?! That’s AMAZING, Kayla!! That is so, so cool. I knew that you wrote, I just didn’t realize how much! Do you think you’re going to try to self-publish them, or get them published by a company? What are they about?? Btw if you are ever serious about publishing them…I’m an editor 🙂 And a pretty damn good one. So if you need one, I’d definitely be interested!

    Okay, now to the actual post, haha. Personally, I’m just a big fan of names in general. I mean, my boyfriend and I must’ve debated for DAYS over what to name our cat. We went back and forth, back and forth, trying to find one that suited his character as well as was significant in some other way. I think I naturally gravitate towards unisex names. I like it when boys/girls are given names that would normally be given to the opposite sex and it makes you think for a bit and usually ends up being cute. I’m trying to think of a good example off the top of my head, but I can’t :/ But there is definitely also a time and a place for traditional boy and girl names, although I’m much more a fan of the flowery girly names than the masculine ones.

    I like that you take some thought into how you name your characters. I like it when authors do that in general. It shows that they really care about their story and about their characters, and that they really put time into thinking of the PERFECT name to match up with whomever. I also like it when authors choose names that mean something significant, too. Like if the meaning of the name matches with the character’s personality or something.

    Great post! 🙂

    • Haha, yes! I wrote my first when I was fourteen (a quest-based fantasy elf thing. I like the story, but the writing is AWFUL), the second when I was sixteen (based on genetics and free will and a bit like Ella Enchanted but more sci-fi less fantasy? I like that one, but hate the ending. Plus, I wrote it as an adult book, not YA). My third was when I was seventeen, and I LOVE that one (a “what if we had corporeal consciences that turned evil” question), but I ended up not finishing the last few chapters due to all that stuff we talked about :/ The depression took away all motivation. And now I’m writing the fourth, which is a contemporary YA about a girl who lost her best friend in a car accident, and is going on a road trip with her best friend’s brother to scatter the ashes. And I’m really proud of that one, to be honest 🙂 Half the time I wonder if I’m really the one writing it – there’s no way I can write some of the lines that get onto the pages!

      And I’m always looking for editors/beta readers/people with opinions, so if you want me to send you some chapters, I can 🙂

      What did you end up naming the cat?? That is the important question here!

      • Why am I not getting email notifications for your comment replies?? I had to come back and check on this post to see if you ended up replying 😦

        Hahahaha well he’s a Russian Blue breed, so we went with Ivan. We were debating between Ivan and Dimitri (both Russian names, obviously), and ultimately went with Ivan. My mom immediately joked that he was going to be bad cat because of Ivan the Terrible…and he’s an AWFUL cat haha. I mean, I love him, but he has a ton of behavior issues that we’re trying to deal with.

        Oh my gosh, you’re writing a contemporary YA? That is totally not something I expected to hear you say haha. But I really really like the premise of it 🙂 I’d love to read some of it! Ummm corporeal consciences that turned evil?? That’s crazy haha. I’ve never even thought of anything like that before. That’s such an original idea! Wow. You should try to go back and finish that one day, maybe. I’m glad you’re getting back into writing, though. That’s the important part! I know how depression can take you away from the stuff you love. And I bet that writing can be very therapeutic, too. So it’s doubly good 🙂

      • How rude! WordPress needs to get itself together.

        Ivan does sound like a pretty evil name xD

        I know! I never thought I would be able to say that either. But it’s really a huge healing tool for me right now. I didn’t expect that at all, but putting my emotions to fuel the story is exactly what I need right now. And I think I will return to that other story after I finish this one. I really did like that concept!

        Okay I’ll send you the first chapter and you can tell me what you think!

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