Friday, July 18, 2008

What's in a Name?

I'm in the midst of writing a short story collection and that means I've got more characters to deal with than usual. As a scenario comes to mind, I begin typing the tale on the laptop. However, there's always a mini mogul as I head out of the gate. What's this character's name? How about Tom? No, I've used that in Fouling Out. Does he need a last name? Sorry to all the Smiths out there, but something else please. And why do all the last names that hit me sound so British, so conservative?

When I used to teach Writers' Workshop in school, I inherited a naming rule that students had heard many times from previous teachers. If a student wanted to use a classmate's name, he had to ask for permission. This rule generated its share of chaos. Invariably, I'd have to break from a conference with one student to deal with the commotion in another area of the room.

"Bob's using my name in his story," Sue complained.

"So. You said I could."

"But I don't want to be the monster's lunch."

"It's his breakfast, stupid."

If Sue wasn't a monster meal, she was stuck on an island with Fred--and no one wanted to be stuck with Fred. Or she'd fallen off a cliff. Again. Often students would counter the student's protest with "It's not you, Sue. It's a Sue I made up."

How many possible names exist on this planet? Didn't Jessica Alba just name her newborn Honor? (We can't forget Ms. Paltrow's precious Apple either, can we?) Eventually, I did something shockingly dictatorial: I banned (BANNED!) the use of classmate's names in creative writing.


"Why aren't you writing anything, Bob?"

"I can't think of a name." Yep, the only names I know are the names of the people in this class. After that, my mind's blank.

I brought in a phone book. Flip and randomly point. Frederick is the first name. Need a last name? Flip and point again. Abbott. Frederick Abbott. Done. (Note: This demonstration came from the use of an actual telephone directory. Frederick Abbott is mine. Do your own flipping!)

Kids liked it. It was a quick "game" they incorporated into the writing process. I've been using that method for my own writing ever since.

Now I know there are people who insist that the name has to fit the character. Sue is just not right. It's gotta be Susie. Better yet, Ethel. (Do you really wish the name Ethel on anyone, fictional or not?) If it's gotta be Ethel, change it when that nagging thought invades her brain. If it was always Ethel, then leave the phone book in the drawer. Get the name down and move on. There's a story to be told.

It works for me.

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