Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Playing the Name Game

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.


Meredith Cole said...

You had three names you could agree on? Not bad. I became worried that if we moved beyond one boy, there would be major disagreements. Although I'm quite convinced that girl's names (with kids and characters) are easier to decide.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I totally agree that I would not stick my nose into a bouquet of butt rot buds, no matter what the Bard said. Sometimes when I'm in the early pages of a manuscript, I have to try names on characters, like shoes, until I get the right fit. I know I have the perfect name when that character comes alive on the page. It's like they were just waiting for me to discover them.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Great post, Tracy! I'm glad you guys at least got three children properly named. We only managed ONE, and it was hotly contested (Thor, my husband wanted to name him Thor. My son, upon hearing this, is now bitterly disappointed that we did not name him Thor. THOR!).

Working with words, a name on a page is where it all starts. Or doesn't.

Happy trails to St. Louis!

Beth Caudill said...

With our first child, we were told we were having a girl and we couldn't agree on a name. I went into labor still without a name for the little girl I was supposed to have.

But being a good planner, we had a boys name picked out and agreed upon. Lucky us, our first child turned out to be a boy.

The second we were pretty much guaranteed a boy and eventually agreed on a name earlier than with out first child.

We thankfully won't have any more children and still don't have a girls name that we both like.

Reece said...

Nice post, Tracy. You would think that naming characters would be easy, but I always seem to go through about three or four names for a major character before I settle on one.

And, Becky, what's wrong with Thor? Thor rules!