The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, October 20, 2008

Stumpknockers and name-games

By Tamara Lee

You know that dreamy hour, two, three you spend trying to come with the perfect character name or title? Those precious hours wasted, procrastinating (we may call it “working on the piece,” but this is a post about naming and I’m naming that tactic what it is—procrastination, pure and simple) can often turn from brainstorming-fun to creative-angst in a matter of half a day. We become increasingly aware that the naming of a thing is its life force, as we seek the essence, the just-so, the perfect signifier for our tale.

I always loved Mordecai Richler and Philip Roth’s character names. Often Jewish and maybe a bit difficult to say, so that the name we pronounce in our heads takes on its own shape. Hear them read or refer to the name in an interview and suddenly there’s shame or disappointment or some other emotion (that doesn’t have a name but we know that feeling, and trying to name it is what got us into this mess in the first place, so let’s just leave it at that for now, shall we?) My first name may be Hebrew, but I’ve heard every possible pronunciation and have given up correcting others to the version I speak or hear in my own head. I’ve learned to pick my battles, and the pronunciation of my name is not one of them. Deciding a character’s name, though, is very much so, a tussle I tough-love the hell out of.

Jennifer Jacquet’s piece in The Tyee considers the current tendency to rename fish as a way to control consumers’ interest (“The rename game is working the same way for seafood. Slimeheads weren't a culinary hit until they became "orange roughy." Today's "spotted sunfish" are yesterday's stumpknockers”). As writers, we must also consider our own interest, maintaining it. I’ve found myself unable to go on with a story if the character’s name isn’t right (Ah, Procrastination, by any other name...). After reading Jacquet’s piece, I was reminded of a dilemma I have with one, two, three of my projects: they have the same name, but each piece, though inspired by several of the same characters, differs greatly from the others in plot and tone. But I’m infatuated with the name, and am reluctant to decide on new titles, knowing that I will see the project differently afterwards.

Several people I know have, as adults, changed their name. It was a conscious choice to slip into a new self, or a “true” self, and start anew. Does this work with fiction? Will renaming these pieces, maybe the characters (whose names have been the same for a very long time) rekindle or destroy the story? Or will it feel like I’m pronouncing it wrongly, letting my head still think of it in terms of its former identity?

Cervantes, albeit referring primarily to reputation, has written, “A good name is better than riches,” but we can go all the way back to the Old Testament, to perhaps where the whole naming mess really began, “A good name is better than precious ointment.” In the case of a procrastinating writer, though, a good name is the ointment.



Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Good one, Tamara. Character names are very important to me. They denote specific traits as well as backgrounds. I find it hard to write a story if I don't have the name right.

Thu Oct 23, 12:46:00 am GMT-4  

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