Devourer of Words 026: So, What’s In A Name?
We’re all hoping for that moment in a script, where you build up to the introduction of a character and you want it to have the same immortal cool as Ian Fleming’s introduction of 007: “The name is Bond, James Bond.” As much as the engineering of that moment is important, so is the name itself. Because names have weight. They have power. They soften the ground of your personage with an evocation. They are also a responsibility, and not a thing to be taken lightly. As cultural critic Marshal McLuhan said, “The name of a man is a blow from which he never recovers.”
So when it comes to naming your character, try and have it mean something—and don’t name him something cool for cool’s sake. Resist the urge to unleash another Cypher Raige—Will Smith’s character from After Earth—on the world. For my money, there are two pop-culture touchstones that did naming the right way, but for wholly different reasons.
There are a lot of landmark things about the universe Gene Roddenberry built, and a lot of reasons why we remember the players in that universe, but the fact that no character has a name longer than two syllables helps. Kirk. Spock. Bones. Sulu. Riker. Worf. Picard. Yar. Troi. Sisko. Dax. Odo. They’re all different, they all speak to their ethnic origins while still being incredibly easy to latch onto. I was never the biggest Babylon 5 fan growing up—while I can appreciate the show for what it was and what it did, I knew going in that it would never have quite the same legacy as Star Trek because the names didn’t stick.
The first season of Babylon 5 introduced us to Jeffrey Sinclair, Susan Ivanova, and Michael Garibaldi. Even though it was explained that a “garibaldi” is a kind of fish that aggressively defends its progeny, the names just rank too decorous. I get that names can have a symbolic meaning, but you can’t rely on the reader to do that homework and make that inference. And I know quite a few Jeffreys, and they’re all wonderful people, but I don’t think I’m following a Jeff into combat, fictional or not.
Every name of every character on Cheers reveals something about who they are in ways that are almost subliminal but totally applicable. Sam Malone: You’re only saying one of those Ms, so it becomes Sam Alone, a guy who is always apart from everything; a recovering alcoholic who runs a bar, who has never found a woman who can go toe-to-toe with him. Diane Chambers: Walled off, almost regal in her disdain. Frasier Crane: all about the cranium, smarter than everyone else, and dumber at the same time. Coach: It’s right there, same with Norm. All of these names work on an unconscious level, giving you information about the characters without hammering you over the head with any of it.
Names have power and sometimes, a character is working to subvert or subsume that power. When Adam Freeman and I were building the world of Genius, we looked at the place and time we were setting our story and found names that made sense, but also said something more. Our lead character is a black teenager named Destiny Ajaye. “Destiny” served two functions: it was both the sort of name you would absolutely encounter in South Central LA and the kind of aspirational name that poor parents give the children they hope can escape. And “Ajaye” because Franklyn Ajaye is a phenomenal, nigh-forgotten stand-up comedian. Sometimes, they come to you from the strangest places.
But do the thought exercise that comes with naming characters—who is this person supposed to be, and how does what you call them add or subtract to what their experience would be in the world? Is he hiding from a long family lineage? Is she ashamed that they’re named after a compass direction? Does she go by a nickname—if so, why? Does his name betray his race and, if so, how has that affected the opportunities presented to him? Does a Luther get to be bank president faster than a Colin? Will we ever have a president with the first name Tiffani?
“The name of a man is a blow from which he never recovers.” Our job, as writers, is to put our characters in the worst situations and then make them fight to overcome. Why not start at their “birth?”
Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!