Overthinking Character Names

I started a writing project that is set in 1880. I am still working on a lot of details but I’ve got a good idea of my main character, and I am trying to name her and the other important character. The problem? SSA baby name records begin in 1880. When they are already in their 30s or 40s.

If I assume that names generally cycled through every two generations, as they tend to now (people in my age group frequently name children after their grandparents, who tend to be born about 70 years before the baby in question), and if I also assume people had children earlier, then I might look to names being given to children 20-30 years after my story is set. Does that make sense?

Of course, then my preferred name for my heroine is nowhere to be found. Which doesn’t mean I can’t use it, but it bothers me.

The other thing I’d like to find is a breakdown of the immigrant population by nationality, to find names that perhaps were not popular on the SSA list but might have been common in particular areas. (I’ve read a lot of Willa Cather. I want to use names like Alexandra and Antonia. But, like, not those exact names.) Of course, I can’t find that information. I’m pretty sure it exists, but it’s not a quick google search away.

And finally. Let’s say you were naming a not-great husband in a western. You’d name him Frank, wouldn’t you? I thought so. Trying to come up with another one.

4 thoughts on “Overthinking Character Names

  1. Swistle

    April 30, 2015 at 4:30pm

    The most common thing now is for grandparent names (grandparents of the parents, that is, not of the baby) to still have a residue of “old lady/man” to them, and for great-grandparent names to sound fresh and new and ready for use. But I don’t know if it was that way back in the 1850s or 1860s, or if there were totally different naming patterns then; I suspect people were less worried about using hip, “unique but not too weird” names then, or about sounding fresh, or about the child not having to share the name with ANYONE.

    Also I don’t know how the generation length compared. Now it’s maybe 30 years between parent and child, and maybe then it was more like 20 years—things like that. I’d say the important thing would be to find out if the name was used AT ALL at that time, or if the usage is only modern. Buuuuuuuuut….I don’t know how to find that out. I suppose looking up the history of the name online and/or in the Oxford Dictionary of First Names is the only method I’d have.

    This is basically a comment about what I don’t know.
    Swistle´s last post ..Clearance Haul; Enough Said

    • Annika

      May 1, 2015 at 11:58am

      Oh, interesting, my kids’ names are from my grandparents’ generation. It makes sense that in general people would go three generations back, though. And yeah, I don’t have any information about where/who people got their baby names from back then, but I’m certain I could make reasonable guesses if I could just decide what to base my guesses on.

  2. Amy

    April 30, 2015 at 5:22pm

    I am all up and down ancestry.com; let me hook you up.

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