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Posted, Jul. 14, 2004
Updated, Jul. 20, 2004


QuickLink: A66395

Writing Tool #14: Interesting Names

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Remember that writers are, by training and disposition, attracted to people and places with interesting names.

The attraction to interesting names is not a tool, strictly speaking, but a condition, a kind of sweet literary addiction. I once wrote a story about the name Z. Zyzor, the last name listed in the St. Petersburg, Fla., phone directory. The name turned out to be a fake, made up long ago by postal workers so that family members could call them in an emergency, just by looking up the last name in the phonebook. What captured my attention was the name. I wondered what the Z stood for: Zelda Zyzor? Zorro Zyzor? And what was it like to go through life last in line?

Fiction writers, of course, get to make up names for characters, names that become so familiar they become part of our cultural imagination: Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane, Hester Prynne, Captain Ahab, Ishmael, Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield.

Sports and entertainment provide an inexhaustible well of interesting names: Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Zola Budd, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Shaquille O'Neal, Spike Lee, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley.

Writers gravitate toward stories that take place in towns with interesting names:
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  • Kissimmee, Florida
  • Bountiful, Utah
  • Intercourse, Pennsylvania
  • Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan
  • Fort Dodge, Iowa
  • Opp, Alabama

But the best names seem, as if by magic, attached to real characters who wind up making news. The best reporters recognize and take advantage of coincidence between name and circumstance.

A story in The Baltimore Sun revealed the sad details of a woman whose devotion to her man led to the deaths of her two young daughters. The mother was Sierra Swann, who, in spite of a lyrical name evoking natural beauty, came apart in a grim environment, "where heroin and cocaine are available curbside beneath the blank stares of boarded-up windows." The writer traced her downfall, not to drugs, but to an "addiction to the companionship of Nathaniel Broadway."

Sierra Swann. Nathaniel Broadway. A fiction writer could not invent names more apt and interesting.

I opened my phone book at random and discovered these names on two consecutive pages:

  • Danielle Mall
  • Charlie Mallette
  • Hollis Mallicoat
  • Ilir Mallkazi
  • Eva Malo
  • Mary Maloof
  • Joe Malpigli
  • John Mamagona
  • Lakmika Manawadu
  • Khai Mang
  • Rudolph Mango
  • Ludwig Mangold

Names sometimes provide a kind of backstory, suggesting history, ethnicity, generation, and character. (The brilliant and playful American theologian Martin Marty refers to himself as "Marty Marty.")

The writer's interest in names often extends beyond person and place to things. Roald Dahl, who would gain fame from writing the novel "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," remembers his childhood in sweet shops craving such delights as "Bull's-Eyes and Old Fashioned Humbugs and Strawberry Bonbons and Glacier Mints and Acid Drops and Pear Drops and Lemon Drops ... My own favourites were Sherbet Suckers and Liquorice Bootlaces." Not to mention the "Gobstoppers" and "Tonsil Ticklers."

It's hard to think of a writer with more interest in names than Vladimir Nabokov. Perhaps because he wrote in both Russian and English — and had a scientific interest in butterflies — Nabakov dissects words and images, looking for the deeper levels of meaning. His greatest anti-hero, Humbert Humbert, begins the narration of "Lolita" with this memorable paragraph:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

In this great and scandalous novel, Nabokov includes an alphabetical listing of Lolita's classmates, beginning with Grace Angel and concluding with Louise Windmuller. The novel becomes a virtual gazetteer of American place names, from the way we name our motels: "All those Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest Courts, Pine View Courts, Mountain View Courts, Skyline Courts, Park Plaza Courts, Green Acres, Mac's Courts" to the funny names attached to roadside toilets: "Guys-Gals, John-Jane, Jack-Jill, and even Bucks-Does."

What's in a name? For the attentive writer, and the eager reader, the answer can be fun, insight, charm, aura, character, identity, psychosis, fulfillment, inheritance, decorum, indiscretion, and possession. For in some cultures, if I know and can speak your name, I own your soul. Rumpelstiltskin.

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  1. In the Judeo-Christian story of Creation, God grants mankind a special power over other creatures: "When the Lord God formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, he brought them to the man to see what he would call them, for that which man called each of them, that would be its name." Have a conversation about the larger religious and cultural implications of naming, including ceremonies of naming such as birthing, baptism, conversion, and marriage. Don't forget nicknames and street names and pen names. What are the practical implications for writers?
  2. J. K. Rowling is the enormously popular author of the Harry Potter series. Among her many gifts as a writer is her aptitude for naming. Think of her heroes, Albus Dumbledore or Sirius Black or Hermione Granger. And her villains, Draco Malfoy and his henchmen Crabbe and Goyle. Read one of the Harry Potter novels, paying special attention to the author's great imaginative universe of names.
  3. In a daybook or journal, begin to keep a record of interesting character names and place names related to your community.
  4. The next time you are reporting a story, interview an expert who can reveal to you the names of things you do not know: flowers in a garden, parts of an engine, branches of a family tree, breeds of cats. Imagine ways you might use such names in your story.

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