By Tracy Kiely
My husband and I have three children. We could not have a fourth. Not because of time constraints, medical conditions, or financial limitations, mind you. We simply ran out of names we could agree on. I’d suggest a name for a girl, and my husband would be assaulted by some memory of a mean little girl who picked her nose. He’d suggest a name for a boy, and I’d have a vision of that kid who got waaaaaay too into Dungeons and Dragons.
Shakespeare once famously opined “That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet,” and since he’s Shakespeare, for goodness’ sake, most of us nod our heads in respectful agreement and murmur, “Oh, yes. How very true. Spot on.”
However, at the risk of incurring the wrath of English teachers everywhere, I respectfully disagree. Now before you start screaming at your monitors (all two of you), hear me out. While I have enormous respect for the Bard, I would tender the argument that were we to call said flower, oh, I don’t know, let’s go with “butt rot,” there might be some among us who might hold off on sticking our noses into an arrangement of them. Yes, it would smell nice were we to overcome our hesitation to give it a full-on sniff, but would we?
Names matter. They suggest. They imply. They are the first glimpse we have into a person’s background (via their parent’s preferred nomenclature). You introduce yourself as “Donny Joe,” and I will hazard a guess that you own at least one plaid, flannel shirt. You present me with a card that reads “Winston Thorpe, III, Esq.” I will likewise infer that you might own a silk tie. Or at least you want me to think you do.
Is this a fool-proof plan? Absolutely not. Do people still judge anyway? Absolutely.
In picking names for my characters, I go with what those names suggest to me. I might use the name of that kid who got a tattoo to celebrate his elevation to Dungeon Master or I might use the name of an old boss whom I despised. Really, really despised.
(Legal Disclaimer: For this latter example, I, of course, immediately rejected that tactic as being horribly immature and beneath me, and so did not. I may have mentioned his greasy hair and lack of oral hygiene, but not his name.)
I don’t have a list of stock names for the good, the evil, or the daffy. Instead, I try and think of my character’s background and what their parents might have named them. I also wonder what said character would have done with that name. Would they have changed it? Glorified in it? Made a nickname out of it? For me, that’s what begins to shape the character.
And so, it’s far easier to shape a character on a page by presenting them with a name than it is to shape the character of a child. Can you imagine what kind of nursing home Winston Thorpe, III might stick me in one day? You just know it would be horrible.