Naming a Kid for a Fictional Character Is High Stakes

The Jolenes and Daeneryses of the world have some baggage to contend with.

A book wrapped in a baby blanket, with a pacifier
Inara Prusakova / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Once upon a time, there were three sisters named Meg, Jo, and Amy, but they’re not the sisters you’re thinking of. For starters, the oldest sister’s name is actually Laurie Jo (full name Laurie Jo Lesser Hodgson), while Meg (Lesser Roberts) and Amy (Lesser Courage) are twins. They are not the characters from Louisa May Alcott’s famous book about sisters, Little Women, but they were named for those characters, in a roundabout fashion.

On the phone together, the three sisters argued over whether Laurie Jo, a 67-year-old web designer who lives in Charlevoix, Michigan, was named for the book or not. (I had wondered whether her name was a defiant act by her parents—Laurie is the charming neighbor boy in the book, whose proposal Jo refuses, to the dismay of many fans.) They decided that no, their parents just liked the name. When the younger sisters were born, in 1956, their parents were surprised to find themselves with twins. They had only prepared one name: Amy.

“Then they realized they could do the Little Women,” Amy, an architect who lives in Riverside, Connecticut, told me. To top it off, the girls’ grandmother’s name was Marguerite. Meg was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Fans of the book might protest that there were four sisters, and the Lesser family has no Beth. “Obviously the answer is [they] didn’t have another child,” Laurie Jo said. But when she was young, “I decided in my head we didn’t have a Beth because Beth died in the book.” It would hardly be an auspicious start to a kid’s life to name her after a character most famous for her tragic death. Plus, they already had a cousin named Beth.

Naming a child after a fictional character is a high-stakes proposition. Like naming a kid for a family member, it can be more meaningful than just picking a name out of a baby book, but it also comes with much more baggage. Unlike a family name, however, a name from pop culture carries connotations not just among relatives, but in the wider world as well. Who could meet three sisters named Amy, Meg, and Laurie Jo and not think of Little Women?

As far as character names go, the Lesser sisters’ are subtle: When the sisters move through the world as individuals, it’s far less obvious to people they meet where their names are from. There are different tiers, I’ve found, of fiction-inspired names. Some people aren’t named after a character, per se, but their parents happened to like a name they heard on TV, for instance. That’s what happened to Bailey Vassali, a 22-year-old sports reporter who lives in Springfield, Missouri. Her name was inspired by a character from the ’80s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati (which stopped airing before she was born). “Dad was just watching reruns” when her parents were thinking up names for her, she says.

Others are named for a character, but not in an obvious way, like Calvin Henderson, a 24-year-old laborer in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. His full name is Robert Calvin Henderson—Robert is a family name he shares with his dad and his grandpa. His parents anticipated calling him by his middle name from the start, and named him after the main character in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. (In case anyone doubts Henderson’s family’s intentions, his grandmother gave him a stuffed tiger named Hobbes when he was born.) Henderson says that growing up, people he had just met would sometimes ask him, “Where’s Hobbes?” Thanks to the stuffed animal, he had an answer, but Calvin is a common-enough name that the association isn’t immediately apparent to everyone.

Not so for Jolene Cannady. The 44-year-old nurse practitioner’s patients in Burlington, North Carolina, regularly sing Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” to her when they meet. “My patients never forget my name,” she told me. And her whole life, everyone has always known exactly where it came from.

According to Laura Wattenberg, a name researcher and the founder of the baby-name site Namerology, there’s a tendency to think of character names as a modern trend, given all the press around the popularity of names like Khaleesi and Daenerys from Game of Thrones, but it’s been a common method of naming for quite a while. Take the Lesser sisters, for example. “We are so used to names of past generations that we don’t realize where they came from,” Wattenberg told me. For example, she cited the name Samantha, which, according to Social Security Administration data, was uncommon in the U.S. until 1964, when the show Bewitched (in which the titular witch was named Samantha) debuted. The name’s popularity surged that year, and continued to rise in the years after.

Even if character names aren’t a 21st-century invention, they dovetail with other current trends in naming. Parents have been seeking more and more distinctive names in recent years, which has meant that today’s most popular names are given to far fewer children than the most popular names of earlier eras. What’s more, Pamela Redmond Satran, a founder of the baby-name site Nameberry, points out that “the overarching influence on baby names in our era is meaning. People are looking for names that have strong personal meaning to them.” Many character names can meet both criteria.

A unique, meaningful name is just what Kahlan Strop’s parents were looking for, and found in the ’90s fantasy series The Sword of Truth. Strop’s mother already liked the name Kalynn, Strop told me, and her father introduced her to the books, hoping she’d be willing to change the spelling to match one of the main characters, Kahlan. What’s more, “they listened to all the audiobooks to make sure they weren’t mispronouncing my name,” Strop said.

One danger with naming your kid after a specific work of art is, well, your kid might not like it as much as you do. What if someone finds her namesake character off-putting? A much-discussed example of a fictional name backfiring: all the parents who named their children Daenerys or Khaleesi only to find out that the character—spoiler—turns into a despot at the end of Game of Thrones. (For what it’s worth, many parents interviewed in the aftermath expressed no regrets.) Cannady, whose parents played “Jolene” for her regularly growing up, said, “I was probably in middle school when I understood what the character Jolene was like. I said to my mom, ‘Why did you name me after a woman who tried to steal another lady’s husband?’” Her mom told her she just liked the name. Though Cannady sometimes got made fun of for her name when she was young, she said, “as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate my name and enjoy it.”

No matter the circumstances, Redmond Satran says, character names come with “a certain level of expectation in terms of what your personality’s going to be like.” She suspects that, deliberately or not, “one reason people are really attracted to names like this is because there is an illusion that you can make your child into who you want them to be. One of the appeals of a name is that it’s something you get to pick. You’re picking a lot of qualities you want for a child, and whether or not your child lives up to those is out of your control.”

For much of her life, Amy Lesser Courage chafed at the association with her namesake. “I always felt absolutely ashamed,” she told me. Amy March from Little Women “seemed to me to be such a social climber, superficial, and vain. I really don’t think I have those qualities, and I don’t like those qualities.” But as she thought about the character over the years, she said, she recognized some good qualities in Amy March that she could relate to: “She was very optimistic and positive.” On the call, her sisters jumped in immediately. “That’s you, Amy!” they affirmed. “I feel a little better,” she replied.

The gamble worked out better for Kahlan Strop’s parents. Strop loves her name, and enjoys the books it came from. “The Sword of Truth is kind of pulpy, but it’s good stuff,” Strop said. “Its main character is this hero who finds the sword of truth; the love interest who kicks his butt and gets him going is Kahlan. She has a huge arc; she becomes queen at one point and the head of her magic order. She’s a very respected, powerful person in the story.”

Strop didn’t read the books until she was in her late teens, she said—they’re not for kids—and until then, she satisfied her curiosity by asking her parents to describe the character she was named for. “She is very driven, strong, and fiercely protective of the people she loves,” Strop told me. “That was what [my parents] focused on: ‘We wanted you to be brave, to fight for what’s right and to fight for the truth.’ I thought it was cool. I can remember walking down the school hallway thinking, I’m gonna be just like this Kahlan girl when I get older.” She likes having a character name so much that she decided to carry on the tradition: Her daughter’s name is Arya, after the adventurous Arya Stark from Game of Thrones