What’s in a Name?

Everything. I’d never start writing a story unless I knew the characters’ names. What a name tells you about a character is limitless–and I’m not talking about what a naming dictionary says it means. I’m talking about the sound of a name, the syllables, long and short vowels, aspirated or unaspirated consonants. The shape of the sound can tell you about the character’s personality, their world, even give you a basic idea of their appearance.

Young writers often shy away from naming their characters, instead using “he” and “she” or tags like “the woman” and “the man.” My theory is that they do this for one of two reasons.

1. They don’t know enough about their characters. Pretty self-explanatory.

2. They’re afraid to learn more about their characters. This is an easy one to get caught up in, because writers want their readers to be interested in the story. The young writer can get hung up on the idea that if a reader can’t relate to a character the reader won’t care to find out what happens. For example, an audience of elderly professors from Yale reading about a teenage boy working on a catfish farm in Mississippi. Or an audience of Napa wine connoisseurs reading about a cellist living in South Brooklyn. Because how can anyone stay interested in something they can’t see themselves doing in a place they’ve never been?

The young writer may think that by keeping things vague he can reach the widest possible audience. (Which is probably why in these stories the setting is just as nondescript as the character–the kitchen, the city, near the beach. Heck, everybody’s seen one of those.) “If I don’t say the character’s name, the reader can’t infer where he’s from, what he looks like, or what he does. Then the reader can project the things he wants to see onto the character and he’ll care more about what happens in the story.” If this were true, every best-seller in the world would be about the woman and the man in the city. Flat, empty, boring. Specific details like names, settings, etc., give the reader something to hang onto, something to build a world from–basically, something to stay interested in.

But I’ve been thinking and rambling on about all of this with the intention of eventually coming to a point. Joshua and I know what we’re going to name Enis. We’ve had names picked out from the beginning, prepared for a boy and a girl. We were even prepared for twins of either sex. Barring a major disparity in how our son looks, his name is ready and waiting. And when they hear it, people are going to think we’re insane. Especially if we explain how we came up with the name. But that’s the fun part about being me and Josh: anytime we explain our decision making process, people think we’re insane.

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