Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Playing the Name Game

By Tracy Kiely

My husband and I have three children. A fourth was simply not an option. This was not due to any scheduling conflicts, medical conditions, or financial limitations. We simply ran out of names on which we could agree. I’d innocently suggest a name for a girl, and my husband would suddenly be assaulted by a memory of a mean little girl who picked her nose. He’d then suggest a name for a boy, and I’d have a vision of that kid who got waaaaaay too into Dungeons and Dragons and was sporting a full beard by sixth grade   
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 who are reading), please hear me out. While I have enormous respect for the Bard, I would tender the argument that were we the Rose called, oh, I don’t know, let’s go with “Buttus Rottus,” 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 the question is - 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 flannel shirt. You present me with a card that reads, “Winston Harrison Thorpe, III, Esq.” I will likewise infer that you might own a silk tie. Or at least you want me to think you do.
I offer this exchange from the movie The Sure Thing as proof. Because I love this movie and it’s my blog.

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 I did not use it. I may have mentioned his greasy hair and total lack of oral hygiene, but I did not mention 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, 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 my kid would stick me in had I saddled him with the name Winston Harrison Thorpe, III? You just know it would be horrible. And I would deserve it. Especially as our last name isn’t Thorpe.



Susan C Shea said...

I have a new manuscript in early early days and I'm thinking before it's done I'll have to further disguise the name of a woman I once hired who spent the next three years trying to undercut me with the rest of my staff. Right now, the name is soooo close. And the character is a smooth-talking fraud. Works for me!

Alan Orloff said...

I'm going to name the protagonist in my next book, Buttus Rottus. Thanks for the great idea!

RJ Harlick said...

Great post, Tracy. I'll go with Buttus Rottus too.

TracyK said...

Hmmm…I can almost see it now. 'Buttus Rottus Investigates'. Famed sleuth, Buttus Rottus (BT to his friends, of whom he has many) is back with another mystery. When BT's ex-lover, Itchyous Tushus, is found dead foul play is immediately suspected. Mainly because the victim was found bound, covered in ointment and shot in the back 18 times. When it turns out that the ointment was the last batch of BT's family recipe, suspicion turns to him. Can BT solve the crime and get his ointment back?

Alan Orloff said...

Of course, BT will get the villain in the end.

TracyK said...

Given the subtle names of my characters, please tell me that your "in the end" is a pun. PLEASE!