Try This: On Naming Names or Renaming Them Or Not Naming Them
Let Someone Else Christen Your Babies
Once I committed to writing fiction I asked for Christmas gifts to support that goal. Among these were books of names for babies. Pre-web, expectant parents bought paperback books of names they might give their kid. Such books rolled in from family members at the holidays. In the 1980s this looked like a good idea.
Now, not so much. To me the greatest abstraction is a full name. It’s why Robert Paulson only became his full name once he was dead. Big Bob was a living, likeable character, but Robert Paulson was a name to be carved on a tombstone.
The gift that keeps on giving… Wrong-Headed Advice, that is!
What a character does is most important. What she says is less important than her actions. And her name is the least important aspect of her. Thus:
Does > Says > Thinks > Name
In so much of my fiction the primary characters do and say and feel. The secondary characters do likewise—the space monkeys, the “tenders and biddies” in Survivor—but they have group, undifferentiated names. The characters of least interest and portend get full names at the get-go, but never become actual players. “The price of Marcia Sanders’ abortion,” from the short story “Loser.” Their vague full names trivialize them.
Yet beginning writers agonize over names. I know I did. All those days and weeks poring over baby books.
These days I’m more likely to ask a friend to name my characters.1 Doing so helps create the character as something distinct from myself. And for every rewrite of a story or novel I use Search and Replace to change the names of all the main characters. This allows me greater freedom to radically revise their actions. It loosens my attachment to how they act in the next draft.
The same goes for titles. Consider that you might not be the best person to choose the title2 of your book or story. A close reader can pick the most compelling word or phrase that will hook future readers. Thriller writer Chelsea Cain does a great job at this. When I read one story in workshop, she caught the sentence, “That’s Dad all over,” and suggested a better title. That’s how my story “Dad All Over”—a gristly pun and a sweet reference—got its name.
Consider that you might not be the best person to choose the title of your book or story.
Also, please consider cockney rhyming slang. For example, the writer China Miéville. My thanks to him for once leaving an inscribed book for me at the San Francisco hotel where our respective book tours overlapped by one day. His name is derived from rhyming slang in that “China” stands for “china plate” which rhymes with “mate” which stands for “friend.” In that stepped, cockney way his name is “friend.” What’s interesting is that the pathway of rhyming slang provides many routes for our minds to retrieve the abstract of his name. When you name characters, find a way to provide several routes for people to recall that particular character. A distinguishing physical quality. A role. An example: at my last job, a friend fell in lust with an engineer she’d never met. He sported a floppy blond haircut like some character in a Merchant Ivory film. At first she could only call him “Mr. Good Hair.” Eventually she found he was an extreme sports guy. She met him, and his name became “Darin” for all of us. Not long after, he died in a freeway accident. It was sad to see his tombstone with Darin Evans McAdams carved on it. He’ll always be Mr. Good Hair to his friends.
Likewise, do you remember the television commercials in the ’80s and ’90s for General Foods International Coffees? Two attractive young women sipped instant mochas or cappuccinos as they reminisced about a long-ago trek through Europe. They sipped as they struggled to retrieve the name of some half-forgotten sexy Euro hunk. At last, with a slurp of memory-inducing coffee, one cried out, “Jean-Luc!” That became the default name of every sexy guy-with-no-name for years.
That’s the kind of character name—linked to events, linked to description—that readers will be able to retrieve for the rest of their lives.
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For an important character, always try to use three names you can alternate. A role name, like Dad or Our Uncle or my boss or Agent 235. A familiar name, like Paige. And a combination of both, Dr. Paige or Operative Chang. This allows you to vary your references and prevents clunking repetition or too much reliance on confusing and impersonal pronouns.
Naming your work can be tricky. My favorite anecdote is the one Marvin Hamlisch told about his song Dance: 10, Looks: 3. The song’s original title was Tits and Ass, but the song never got laughs during the try-outs. The audience sat like stones. Then Hamlisch realized the title listed in the show’s program gave away the joke so he changed it. As Dance: 10, Looks: 3 the bawdy lyrics came as a surprise, and the song became the funniest number in A Chorus Line. Likewise, Truman Capote once allowed friends to crash at his house overnight. One had picked up a hillbilly gay kid fresh off the Greyhound bus from Texas. When asked where he wanted to have breakfast, this kid said, “Let’s have breakfast at Tiffany’s!” When the novella and film by that name were hits, every socialite and playgirl in New York claimed to be the inspiration for Holiday Golightly from Tulip, Texas. But the sad, sweet truth is that some forgotten hick who thought a jewelry store sold pancakes was Capote’s real model. One last anecdote: a big hit by the girl group The Bangles was named and inspired by a trip aboard the Staten Island Ferry as it crossed rough water. Wary about walking on the heaving deck, the band members were assured by a deckhand that they’d be safe if they walked sideways. He purportedly told them, “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Oh, I could go on and on.