Jack Matthews: On choosing the right name for a story character

(Here is a brief excerpt from  WORKER’s WRITEBOOK, an unpublished notebook  about the art of writing fiction  which Jack Matthews prepared for  his  Ohio U. creative writing students in the 1990s). An ebook version of this work will be available January 2011).     image

Creativity finds its natural expression in the generation and testing of hypotheses. Actually, it has more to do with the generation than the testing, but we’ll leave the testing part in, for-like the Background to the Opening Scene phases in a story, it cannot be easily distinguished from the generation. Even as we spin an idea, a cadre of analysts in the mind’s bureaucracy are busily probing it and assessing it for its worth.

The words “What if” signal the release of a question or hypothesis, and with it, the imagination. “What if a man awakens one morning to find that his wife has left him?” Is this a good idea?  Well, possibly. It’s hard to tell. Why is it hard to tell? Because it’s too vague. Already, dullness has crept in. Rather, nothing has crept in, and nothing has yet come alive. Why not? Because the idea remains too abstract, too featureless.

So what is one to do? Well, several things are possible. No two writers will bring this idea to life in the same way, and what might be perfect for one, will be deadly dull for the other. Still, there are changes and additions that will unquestionably improve it. Consider this one: “What if Burton Fife, a 78 year old retired fireman, awakes one morning to find that his wife, Phyllis, has left him?”

Is this better? It is. It’s more real, more concrete, more precise. No man is simply a man: all are individual men, with individual names, and whatever happens to them, it will happen at a particular age. And if we change Burton Fife’s name to “Kirk Wolker,” we create a new set of probabilities. Probabilities for whom? For the writer, first; and then, for those later readers who will participate in the story’s meaning.

Of course there are generational codes in the names. Today, Burton Fife will likely be 78 years old, but Kirk Wolker will probably be 32. How can I know this? Well, look around and listen. But are such generational codes always reliable? Of course not; but if you shift their ages, making Kirk 78 and Burton 32, be aware that you are working against stereotypes as they are fixed in the generational codes of proper names. Yes, but are such stereotypes important? Of course they are. Stereotypes are always true, they’re just not true enough.

Note that the information supplied to bring the man in this “what if” alive is information about his name and his age. These are two of the most important things to be known about a character. For a variety of often quite mysterious reasons, names function almost like a genetic (as well as generational) code. You and I may not agree about what the name “Nellie Powers” connotes, and in fact neither of us may be able to describe clearly what this connotation is (I certainly can’t); but the name will nevertheless have a specific rightness for an author.

People are not simply denoted by their names, but to some extent defined by them, in every name there is an onomastic code. A new-born girl named “Nellie” will have a slightly different life from one named “Charity.” Why? Because we are born into a language as we are born into a world that features gravity and the oxygen/carbon dioxide cycle. Her name will affect other people, and thereby Nellie/Charity herself. Is this fair? Whether it’s fair or not is irrelevant; but the answer is, it probably isn’t fair. And yet, what is? Is it fair that some children should be born genetically rich, while others are genetically poor?

Which name will be more helpful in sliding that little hypothetical girl without friction into today’s world? You’re right; not Nellie. But is it possible that Nellie might prove a “good” name? It all depends. You pay a price for everything, and the price you pay for giving your modern little infant girl a nice old-fashioned name may be a constant inhibition to her (“I just hate my name!” Nellie may cry when she’s fifteen), or it may be a source of strength (“You know, your name’s really different!” people may say to her, and she may accept this comment proudly).

While little Nellie’s scenario provides an interesting study in onomastics, it may not seem to concern us as writers. But of course it does. As writers, our most intimate connection with our characters is through their names. Decades ago, I wrote a story about a nurse named “Avis,” who lived in an old gothic house on the shores of Lake Erie, where she had custody over a microcephalic idiot named Wilbur Postlewaite. Shortly after I wrote this story, the slogan “Avis Tries Harder” was developed by a car rental agency and often repeated on TV ads. So I changed the name of my character to “Cleo.” Did that make a difference? Indeed it did; I could feel the force of it ripple throughout the whole story, which means I had to change other things in the story that in my imagination were more fitting for a “Cleo” than an “Avis.” The story was eventually published, whereupon it fell into some great and noble silence.

(This excerpt first appeared on Teleread in February 2010).

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