In 2017, we learned that Eleanor Oliphant was completely fine. As you may recall, there was a bestselling novel all about it, titled, appropriately enough, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. Soon, a wave of syntactically similar book titles followed, all involving simple sentences containing the female protagonist’s name: Evvie Drake started over. Florence Adler swam forever. Eliza started a rumor. Britt-Marie was here. And this year, female protagonists of novels are doing more things than ever, as evidenced by a flood of new and upcoming book titles: Delphine Jones Takes a Chance, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, Lucie Yi Is Not a Romantic, Kamila Knows Best, Nora Goes Off Script, Finlay Donovan Knocks ’Em Dead, and Carrie Soto Is Back, to name just a few.
Using a character’s name has long been a tried-and-true way to come up with a book title; one need look no further than Anna Karenina (or Amelia Bedelia) for proof. And this more specific iteration—the Protagonist Does a Thing formula—has been around at least since Mr. Smith went to Washington. You still see it in movies—Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris comes to theaters next month—as well as celebrity profiles and children’s books all the time. Lately, though, it has become the formula du jour for women’s fiction—so much so that some authors are even renaming their protagonists to fit in with the trend.
Novelist Sally Thorne has a book due out in September that uses the Protagonist Does a Thing convention—Angelika Frankenstein Makes Her Match—but the ubiquity of the construction snuck up on her. “I don’t think it was on my radar when I titled the book this,” she said. “But then in retrospect as the dust settled, I did start to realize I’m seeing names in titles, like Chloe Brown and Evvie Drake and Evelyn Hugo. I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve done it too.’ ”
“It’s been kind of coming on for a few years,” observed April Osborn, a senior editor at Mira Books. “Originally I think it was in a lot of more women’s fiction, a little bit more in the book club space.” Then editors like Osborn brought it to the romance world, where the trend is now most visible: When it came time to lock down a title for a romance novel by Taj McCoy that Osborn edited, she and her team made “a pretty conscious choice” to follow the pattern. When Osborn acquired the book, it was called The Blueprint, but it was published in March with the title Savvy Sheldon Feels Good as Hell.
“We purposely used it on Savvy Sheldon, to give it a little more of that women’s fiction angle, while pitching it definitely as a rom-com,” Osborn said.
Angela Kim, an assistant editor at Berkley, has a few Protagonist Does a Thing books on her list too: She edited February’s Delilah Green Doesn’t Care and will publish its sequel, Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail, in November.
“Delilah Green Doesn’t Care actually came in as a submission with a completely different title,” Kim said. “But then as we read the partial [manuscript] that we got in, we realized that original title didn’t really fit with the tone of the book. So the author, agent, and I brainstormed for new titles, and the author came up with this one.” They didn’t follow the trend on purpose, but “we were all aware that this was sort of a thing that’s been pretty popular,” Kim said.
“There’s no question that characters’ names have been used in titles and that maybe there’s been an increasing appetite for them in light of Eleanor,” said Pamela Dorman, whose eponymous imprint can take credit for the trendsetter and runaway hit Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.
“I’m always attracted to them,” Dorman said of books with characters’ names in their titles. “It immediately captures my attention because I want to know who that character is.” This is by no means only a recent phenomenon: She cited in particular the Miss Julia books, a 22-book series by Ann Ross that started in 1999. Every book in the series has a Protagonist Does a Thing title, from Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind onward. Dorman also pointed to non-sentence hit titles like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Bridget Jones’s Diary as books that were able to draw her in by using a character’s name.
Kerri Buckley, an executive editor at Carina Press, has a theory for why using a character’s name or the name-in-a-sentence construction has particularly taken hold in the romance space: “You’re really highlighting the personal journey of a character or characters,” she said. “We’re sort of putting the individuals up front and center vs. the plot, which is a bit of an evolution for romance.” Buckley edited January’s D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding, which was originally called Ready, Set, Wed. The final title “is just much more effective in putting the characters first and indicating that there is going to be emphasis on personal growth and development versus solely the romance,” Buckley said.
“When I see a full name in a title, I know that I’m going to lose myself in a unique perspective,” said Osborn. “I’m going into a singular woman’s story. I think it’s kind of the opposite of what we see in a lot of the mysteries and thrillers with woman or girl titles.” Thorne posited something similar: “I wonder if this trend is in response to that trend a couple of years ago where all the books were, like, The Woman in the Window, The Girl on the Train.”
If Eleanor Oliphant was one of the first book clubby titles to have a Protagonist Do a Thing, several people I spoke to pointed to Talia Hibbert’s Brown Sisters series, including the popular Get a Life, Chloe Brown, as among the most influential in bringing the proper-name convention over to romance. According to Hibbert’s editor at Avon, Nicole Fischer, there was no grand plan behind it: “This was the title that Talia came up with before the project was even on submission,” Fischer said. “I thought it was sort of a cheeky, catchy title. It had a good ring to it.”
Having a ring to it is, of course, essential for any great title, but when it’s a proper-name title, that means the name itself has to have a ring to it too.
“When we were thinking of Delilah Green Doesn’t Care, we were wondering, Delilah Green, does that flow well?” remembered Kim.
Fischer said the same question came up when her publishing house was finalizing a title for the second book in Hibbert’s series. They landed on Take a Hint, Dani Brown only after weighing the merits, and the syllable count, of Danica, the main character’s full name, vs. Dani, her nickname.
It’s not completely unheard-of for an author to straight up change a character name so it sounds better in a title. “With Taj McCoy’s second book, Zora Dizon Books Her Happy Ever After, Zora’s last name was initially a four-syllable name,” Osborn said. “When we decided we wanted to move in the direction of a character name driving a title, I went back to Taj and asked if there was another last name she’d want to use.”
In Protagonist Does a Thing book titles, after the name of the protagonist comes the, well, doing of a thing. “For a long time when I was working on it, the document was just called ‘Angelika Frankenstein,’ ” Thorne said of her upcoming novel, a rom-com retelling of Frankenstein. But she knew her title would need more to it to make the book legible. “The Makes Her Match part just naturally added on there. The best kind of title is a title where it sums up the entire book.”
“Having just the character’s name—we’re not doing David Copperfield here,” said Osborn. “Having that full sentence does really give you a lot of leeway to tell the reader what kind of story they’re going to get into and what the vibe of the story is going to be.”
In fact, this is how the much-cited Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine ended up with the second half of its title. “When I bought that book, it was just called Eleanor Oliphant,” Dorman said. “The British editor and I kept talking about it and I think it was actually in the U.K. that they said, ‘You know, we think that there should be a little more to that title.’ ”
Despite the book’s success, Dorman said her publisher’s marketing department hasn’t demanded she try to replicate it: “I think it gives them something to work with, but they’ve never said to me, ‘Oh, give me another book with a name title.’ ”
So how do publishers decide when this sort of title is called for?
“I’m actually going through this right now because I bought a book whose working title is Sylvia 2.0,” Dorman said. It’s about a middle-aged woman and her best friend who flee Florida to start a new life in New York. “I’ve been thinking about it and what I want is a title that has her name in it but that somehow gets that idea of a second act into the mix. I definitely want to have a proper-name title if I can for that book.”
Then again, the Protagonist Does a Thing formula doesn’t work for every text. “I publish Jojo Moyes, and Me Before You was a very, very, very selling title. I don’t think it would have done as well if it were called Lou Clark and Her Tragic Love Affair,” said Dorman.
Fischer said that Hibbert has a new series in the pipeline, as yet untitled. As for whether those book titles will include proper names, “I would guess that we want to shift away from doing that again,” Fischer said. Though the convention doesn’t seem played out just yet, there’s always that risk. Or to put it another way: Eleanor Oliphant, Chloe Brown, and Evvie Drake Have Been There and Done That.