Replay: What’s in a name?

This post is getting rerun today because I’ve decided to make a major name change in my story. From now on my narrator, for reasons that matter only to me, will be Joe, not Daniel, Ferreira. Other, lesser, names have changed too.

“That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”  — Bill Shakespeare

roseBelieve it or not, it’s one of the hardest parts of fiction writing, at least for me: coming up with names.

If the name isn’t convincing, the character won’t be. That’s my take, anyway, which is odd because when you think about it names are actually pretty random in real life. Oh, we think there are “typical” names for people. But in reality there aren’t, unless you subscribe to the thought that our names determine what we do. Yet we’re set up to think there are “right” and “wrong” names for people: consider Yul Brynner (yes, that was his real name), or Omar Sharif (no, that wasn’t). And doesn’t Burl Ives just look like a Burl Ives? You somehow just wouldn’t buy a car or a resort timeshare from someone named Lennie Slickman, would you? But how about investing with someone named Vincent Johnson? A little easier?

I agonize over names. Really agonize. I think they’re as important to the inevitability of your characters as the sound of their dialogue or their depth, or back-story. And I keep making alterations. There are often wholesale changes as drafts go on. This applies to fictional places too–restaurants, and so forth.

For the present story I made up the name Welsey Shaw because I wanted something unique (I can’t find any evidence of any real woman currently with the name Welsey) as well as something that had a trace of “blue-blood” in it. Something that would represent a pale, blonde thespian perfectly. Gwyneth Paltrow is perfect—that’s blood bluer than a Smurf’s. But she’s already using it.

For my male protagonist, I wanted a more “meat and potatoes” name. Daniel Ferreira was originally Michael Ferreira, but I liked Daniel more. It was easy enough to change from draft one to draft two with a word processor. I think of how an editor at Macmillan decided that Margaret Mitchell’s heroine should be named Scarlet and not Pansy O’Hara, and told some lowly copy editor to change it every time it appeared in the manuscript. That must have been fun.

Back in the classic Hollywood days they were always changing actors’ names. Think of Cary Grant. Joan Crawford. John Wayne. Cary Grant sounds gracious, and there’s just no way Marion Mitchell Morrison could get all those settlers over the rugged mountains and onward to safety the way John Wayne could. How sexy is Norma Jeane Mortenson? (Not very.)

Somehow, you know Woody Allen is a comedian; Allan Stewart Konigsberg is an historian, or should be. Luke Skywalker and not Deke Starkiller is your clean-cut sci-fi hero and Scarlett and not Pansy OHara is your romantic lead. Seriously, can you picture Clark Gable (now there’s a name, and it was his) saying, “Frankly, Pansy, I don’t give a damn”?

Today it seems name-changing isn’t as prevalent as it used to be, except for rappers. (Let’s face it, Robert Matthew Van Winkle carries little street cred.) Movie and TV stars tend to keep their real names far more often, even if they’re highly unusual (Kaley Cuoco). Partly it’s because we’ve grown more comfortable with ethnically-diverse names. Once Cameron Diaz might have been unthinkable, especially for a blue-eyed “all American” blonde. Keep in mind that 1950s network executives thought it was ridiculous that Lucille Ball (another real name) would be married to Desi Arnaz in a TV show, even though they were in real life.

But the right name is still important. After all, there’s a reason Thomas Mapother IV changed his.


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