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Lincoln or Jaguar?

Close up of different cars in a row. Source: Adobe StockBefore 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?

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