Monday, October 29, 2007


Amazing to spend some time reflecting on the dramatic and emotional weight borne by names, even more amazing when we consider how much time we put into other aspects of the craft.

I got to thinking about this in context with two separate conversations I had with a man who apparently is everybody's favorite writer. Dutch. Elmore Leonard. Conversation Number One came when, as an employee of the same company that published him, I congratulated him on his break-out suspense thriller, then confessed my admiration for some of his Western stories and novels. It was in this context that we came to names and he spoke of a story in which he could not get a particular character to open up and reveal what he was doing in the story--in other words, what he wanted. Checking out some contemporary sources at the Tucson Public Library, Leonard came upon a story involving a prison guard (the same profession as his stubborn character) named Bob Isham, a name he promptly stole and gave to his character with the result that "I couldn't get that garrulous old coot to shut up."

Conversation Number Two came a few years later when I complemented him on a character of his I liked named Ernest Stickney, Jr. To which he replied, "Funny you should mention him. He's begun talking to me again. Wants his own book."

Indeed, Ernest Stickney, Jr. got his book. Stick.

Taking this meditation some distance, I realize there are persons I don't like and accordingly tend to equate them to their name, which influences what I name him or her in a story. To some extent, you can tell a person's approximate age and generation from as minor a thing as her name. Not all that long ago, counting classes and thesis advisement, I had six Jennifers, and now that I think about it, none of them could stand the other and indeed none of them liked her name, preferring some other version such as Jen, J, Jenny, and Fer.

I don't expect the reader to share my like or dislike of the name, but then I don't have to. I know I should work harder to let the characters be whoever they want and I try to let them introduce themselves to me. But Bob will always be a loser because of a particular Bob I grew up with. Not even the fact of my beloved sister having a boyfriend I much admired named Bob could trump my Bob, the Bob I still think about from time to time and picture him as he was at thirteen.

I've had two pretty good friends named Fred, although one of them became a Republican after a while and the other, a gifted musician, more or less drifted away from contact over a minor issue. Before I could track him down and say, damnit Fred, the news came that he had been eaten alive by cancer. Fred became an unh name thanks to James Thurber, who once remarked that Fred was the ideal name for an indecisive dog. Thus, so long Fred.

So here's the exercise. Get out your Excell chart and set off four columns, male names you like and don't like, female names you like and don't.

Keep the list close to had when setting forth.

Keep a pad next to the night stand in case you dream a particularly virulent name, an Estelle, for instance, or a Fahrquar, or a Bruce. Whoa, what about Gretchen? Can you imagine the mischief a Gretchen can cause?

Then there is the sophistication of mixing names and professions. I don't mind Eric, or even Erik. But if I had a plumbing problem and the emergency service sent over an Eric, I believe I'd send him home. Similarly, Lucinda is okay, but not the Lucinda who sometimes waits on me at the bank.

I believe I've hit a kind of emotional lode here. I know enough not to have a character named Bill in the same story as a character named Bob, but the charge of names has had the effect on me of a number of cups of coffee.

This is hot stuff.

This becomes the umpteenth chapter in my ongoing study, How to Write a Story without Being Able to Plot.

You don't need a plot if you have characters whose names give you emotional tweaking. To put it another way, if you've got a Bob or a Fred, why bother with rising action or reversal? Phil will always change his mind at a crucial time. Jack and Jake are reliable beyond belief. No matter what he tells you about his business successes, remember that for years, Harry was a bed wetter, and Phyllis is likely to talk your arm off, and although I've know some remarkable Esthers, they all, on second thought, bear uncomfortable resemblances to their dogs.

I would trust Mario as a mechanic but not a butcher; Art as a musician but not a psychiatrist. And Tony? No! We don't even mention Tony around here.


Lori Witzel said...

What's in a name, indeed. You've hit deep water with your dowsing...just a few of the things I turned up:

Smiler said...

I agree with you that name is everything. I wonder why it is that names are so emotionally charged, and how it is that they seem to determine a lot about a person's character. Somehow, I doubt there's a logical explanation to that.