categories: Cocktail Hour
Years ago, I inherited a long distance student from Bill. It must have been before the Internet’s full societal takeover because I received a copy of the student’s novel-in-progress in the mail, complete with Bill’s wise commentary scrawled in the margins. It was quite a good novel, actually – a funny and engaging mystery – but the student had given his narrator a woman’s name. It figured heavily into the story, all the various problems and misunderstandings caused by this name, along with a lengthy explanation of why his mother had given it to him. Next to this Bill wrote something like, “But we already know why –it’s because the author wanted to give him a funny name.”
I used to name my characters the same way you would name children. I chose names I thought were beautiful, names I thought were cool, names I thought were unique. “Why do your characters always have such weird names?” David (Dave) asked me, early in our relationship. I can’t remember what I said, though I’m sure it was defensive. And then I probably went through whatever story he’d just read and changed all the names – much to its benefit.
Certainly in life people have differing opinions on the benefits of odd or unisex names. Personally I love a girl with a name that could belong to a man. Growing up, one of my coolest, wittiest, and most beautiful friends was a girl named Steuart, a detail which in my eyes only made her cooler. But what works in life can create obstacles in writing, and I work hard to break my students of their love for androgynous names. “Mary” might not be nearly as current as “Cameron,” but it elegantly, seamlessly, and invisibly bestows upon the reader a piece of vital information. And while I’m also a fan of unusual names, the truth is they’re authorial intrusions, particularly when accompanied by an involved explanation as to how this whacky name came to be.
This leads me to my second piece of Bad Advice, which is to practice what you teach. About ten years ago, David and I stayed at a biological station in Belize. A woman worked there who was named Shelmadine, Shell for short. We were both charmed by her, so much so that her name floated into the conversation when we discussed what to name our daughter. But years after we decided against the name for our child, the name still buzzed in my head, so I decided to bestow it upon the narrator of a novel.
Of course I did remember Bill’s exhortation in the margin of that student’s manuscript. But I decided that my years in the field placed me above this kind of consideration. Once you reach a certain point, you can play fast and loose with rules, even as you dispense them religiously to your students. I even gave Shell a little monologue explaining the name’s origins:
If you think that Shell is a weird name for a girl you are absolutely correct. But what you don’t know is that my real name is even weirder. Shelmadine. Does this sound like some kind of quaint and quirky Southern name? It’s not. My parents got it on a trip to Belize, where they went so my dad could study bird life. There was this charming woman who helped run the biological station where they stayed. Her name was Shelmadine and everyone called her Shell, so when I was born about nine months later my parents thought it would be a great idea to use the name for me. “So unusual,” my mother always says, and she’s right. You can’t even find it in a baby book. Believe me, I’ve tried.
This is the only place you will ever see that paragraph in print. Because as it turns out, I have not risen above my own rules. On the seven page letter accompanying the edited manuscript, my editor put the kibosh on my quirky, unique name. “Shell makes a pretty big deal about her name,” she wrote, “and yet it won’t be as interesting to the reader as it is to her, so I’d rather see you add to her characters in other ways…maybe consider a different name?”
When you hear your own advice come back to you, there’s nothing to do but follow it. So for you, Dear Reader, my last piece of naming advice is to avoid giving your characters names that can be found hidden in common words. If, for example, you have a character named Ian, when you attempt to change his name to Jack using Find and Replace, words like “politician” and “musician” will be changed to “politicJack” and “musicJack.” And if I have learned anything while naming characters, it’s that you never want anything to complicate the beautiful simplicity of Find and Replace.