Posted by: Judy M. Goodman | September 28, 2011

I used to think naming the character was the hardest part of writing. My characters were always complaining I’d given them the wrong name. I had not yet realized that a name can inspire characterization.

On a road trip last year, I noticed that the exit signs giving the town names seemed to suggest character names. For example: Mason Watson, Bradley Bourbonnais, and Fern Clyffe (That last is sort of a cheat – it’s the actual name of one town in Illinois, but the principal is the same.) I even got short story out of Alma Herrin. As I looked at the name, Alma Herrin, I remembered a lone paragraph in an aborted short story. Something clicked, so I put the dialog in her mouth. With that, the story unwound of its own free will.

Recently, I was introduced to the six word memoir. For those of you who like writing prompts there are a couple of fairly new sources in town. Though they may not have intended this perk, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure: from Smith Magazine (New York : – Harper Perennial, 2006 21st Century) and It All Changed in An Instant: More Six-word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure (New York : – Harper Perennial 2010) are goods place to start. By design, these bite-sized characterizations will stimulate your writing bone. Examples: “slightly psychotic in a good way;” “afraid of everything, did it anyway;” “She walks barefoot in wet cement;” to name a few. However, once I had done some as exercises, I was more intrigued by creating them.

Mason Watson: no deductive reasoning, will not write.
Bradley Bourbonnais: loves winter sport, can’t tolerate cold.
Marion Harris: would be Rabbi but is Presbyterian.
Fern Clyffe: to her, “Green” is only unfledged.

I bet you could come up with better! Frankly, I prefer some of the ones I came up with from names I found during my unfruitful search for my grandmother’s birth certificate. She was born around 1884, so some of the names were fascinating.

Adam Cully: their first son–their last hope.
Elijah Knox: If door is closed, Elijah Knox.
Joseph H. Newton, MD: wanted a wife a cut above.
Christopher Benton: studied for priesthood–lord have mercy.
Sisters Bonnie and Ida Mason: loved for 19 years, met Louis.

As always, more questions come from answers. The jury is still out whether “William” is the same character as “Wm,” but surely “Will” is a different character than “Willie” and both are different from “William.” I wonder if phonetic clues work the same way? Would Jeanette, as Mom’s cousin in Chicago said it, be a different character that one who calls herself “Je’NEET,” the way an acquaintance from South Africa pronounced it?

Hmm?

William: Wall Street maven, jumped on Friday
Wm: good family man, moved by beauty
Willie: is his own favorite body part
Will: loves good chili, hates bad breath
Jeanette: warm smile shines, open hand holds
“Je’NEET”: wanted more money, got more love

Whatever we eventually decide, one thing is clear: Names are a deep source of characterization. Perhaps, from now on, I’ll opt to let the name choose the character.

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