Monday, January 31, 2005

Naming your Protagonist "Jack"

An excessive number of fictional protagonists in film, books and television are named Jack. Way more than there should be. But so what?, one might say. Jack is a common name. Like Mike or Bob. Why wouldn't it be common in fiction? It's an "everyman" kind of name, perfect for a protagonist.

But a-haaa! No, it's not! I think we've all been duped into thinking that Jack is a very common name. It is my contention that Jack, a distinctly uncommon name has been elevated to everyman status by a unwitting, subconscious conspiracy of storytellers who are all building off the collective delusion that everyone out there is named Jack.

Now, I desperately wanted to get some hard data to back me up here. I wanted to find some sort of authoritative breakdown of popularity of various male protagonist names. I couldn't find any. I can't prove that Jack is way overrepresented in film relative to its real-life popularity; and yet casually, common-sensically, anecdotally, I am aware that there are just massive amounts of fictional people named Jack. Anybody with me on this one?

Exhibit A: I don't know anyone in real life named Jack. I have never known anyone named Jack. Have I known Johns? Yes. Did any of them abbreviate their names to Jack? Nope.

So there's a little bit of concrete scientific evidence for you.

Exhibit B: Our old friend the social security baby names website: According to the record books, "Jack" was a very popular name in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, and then abruptly declined. Here's a table of Jack's popularity ranking by decade:

1900s 41st 1930s 18th 1960s 106th 1990s 113th
1910s 29th 1940s 37th 1970s 161st 2000s 46th
1920s 17th 1950s 57th 1980s 176th

Look at what the table tells you. (I wanted to import a neat little chart I made, but blogger doesn't host free images) In the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's, Jack didn't even crack the top 100 boys names. Here in 2005, a strapping young protagonist would likely have been born in the 60s, 70s and 80s, right at the time when Jack was deeply unpopular.

Shaun, Nathaniel, Harold, Dale... these names were allllll more popular than Jack in the 70s. Hell, Chad was no.30 on the list, way ahead of Jack's no.161. Chad. Where are all the movies where Gary Busey or John Travolta play a guy named Chad?

Here's one possibility. The veteran screenwriters who wrote the movies of the 1980s were all born in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, which, admittedly were Jack-dense decades. If you were a 45 year old guy writing the script for a Death Wish sequel, chances are you could have known a lot of Jacks.

So this maybe is how Jack got its foothold. Though it fell out of favor in real life, it was kept alive by the previous generation which enjoyed giving fictional young people they names they remebered as being popular. Once Jack was established as a good go-to name for an everyman, its legacy was assured.

Now look at the gains and strides Jack has made in the 1990s and the 2000s. In 2003, Jack was back to 43rd place. Would it be crazy of me to suggest that the rediscovered popularity of the name is due to the excessive Jack-named protagonist phenominon? If protagonists were commonly named, say, Kenneth - would we be seeing a resurgence of Kens and Kennys?

I just think it's all kind of annoying because now Jack has this loner, hero, tough guy, protagonist-y aura about it. He's a handsome, rugged Harrison-Fordy type lawyer with the biggest case of his life, or a hard
nosed cop who's seen it all and doesn't play by the rules. Bah! You know what I say? Jack is a very plain, unexciting name that quite reasonably lost popularity in the 50s alongside names like Walter and Eugene.

Take a risk and name your next hero Herman, screenwriters. Or Clyde, Earl, Gilbert, Roland or Gene. Or Sylvester.

Oh, and parents, continue naming babies after your favorite TV characters. That's always a smart choice.

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