Before my mom passed, she struggled with memory issues. It was sad and scary and befuddling to watch. But there’s also a kind of intense creativity involved, as she works to ﬁnd fresh new ways to convey what she wants to express because the old ways are no longer available.
One of the most intriguing aspects for me has been around names. Even when reminded, Mom often can’t retain given names for the new people she meets. But rather than just defaulting to no name at all, she makes up names for them. And here’s the odd thing: once she’s invented a new name, that one sticks in her brain. So I’ll listen to another story from her about “Deb,” all the while translating “Morgan” and pondering which name I think is a better ﬁt for the person herself.
For me, the alternate name carries with it a whole new resonance. “A rose by any other name” is in fact not at all the same old rose. What part of Mom’s brain has imbued Morgan with a powerful “Deb-like” essence — so much so that that’s the name she can remember?
My belief in the power of a name carries over to my writing, too; for me, creating a character name has always been much more than just ﬁnding the right label or identifier. Names carry personality, history, and mood. Names are one-word poems. I often do tons of research to ﬁgure out which name is the best match for the individual I’m inventing; it matters that I get it right.
Guiding students through a similar naming process can be both a creative exercise and a fun way to bring research skills into the ﬁction-writing process. Ask students to brainstorm a list of possible character names, initially based on their personal preferences. Then have them dig into online resources (baby name sites are particularly helpful) to ﬁnd facts to go along with each possible name. What does the name mean? What is its ethnic origin? What are possible nicknames? How popular was it both last year and one hundred years ago? What other names belong in the same “family”? If the story the student is writing is historical or tied to a specific geographic location, would that name be appropriate? Are there similar names that might be a better ﬁt?
Once they have gathered these details, encourage students to consider not only which name they like the most, but which one best suits the essence of the character they have in mind. By the time they’ve completed the whole process, their character will have come alive for them and stepped forward to claim their true name.
Think about it — even if you knew nothing about cars, wouldn’t the mere names “Jaguar” and “Lincoln” be enough to convey some essence of the actual vehicles? If it works when naming a car, why not have your writing students try it too?