Naming a Name

My little Sam

My little Sam

The same day my husband and I found out we were having a boy, he had a name: Samuel Edward Ender. That doesn’t mean it

was a quick decision. We’d been hoping to get pregnant for a while. I had lists of names everywhere. If we’d had a girl, we might have waited till we saw her; there were so many names I liked and each seemed to bear an immensely different personality. But I’ll admit I don’t like a lot of boys’ names, or anyway, I couldn’t picture them on my own son. I’d name a fictional character Sebastian or Lionel or Sawyer, but I couldn’t imagine such a boy popping out of me. The fruit of my loins would need something simpler, more classic. I don’t know why I felt that way. I just did.

I recently forced myself to name a character I had long resisted naming. The stories I’ve written about her are in the second person and her name never came up, so I didn’t give her one. At first, it didn’t seem to matter, but as I wrote more and more about her, it became clear that she needed a name, whether explicitly mentioned or not. How can you really know your character if you don’t know her name, right? But I couldn’t come up with one. Unlike most of my characters, who get names before their stories ever unfold, this character has already appeared in three finished stories, one of which has been published and one of which is about to be. Two more sit unfinished in my computer. This character has a personality. A mother, a father, an aunt. A whole life that has to somehow jive with whatever name I give her.

With my son, whose personality was to be determined, I needed a vague name. With my character, I needed something specific.

So after making a few lists with my husband, we settled on Samuel Edward. There are so many wonderful Sams and Samuels (and one Samwise, though that was thrown out as “too nerdy”) out there–we’d never met a Sam we didn’t like. And both our dads’ middle names are Edward. Voila.

But I couldn’t name my character Kate or Ann or Emily. They were too easy. There had to be a story behind it. Knowing the character’s mother, it had to be something embarrassing, but that could lead to a more innocuous nickname. Perhaps a family name. Then it came to me. I could resume writing about her.

And yet I don’t want to tell you what it is. Strangely enough, I never wanted to tell anyone Sam’s name, either. When I was still pregnant, there was something secret and personal about it; I only told my closest friends and those who pried it out of me. After he was born, I still kept it pretty close. I often refer to him as “my son” or “the baby” or any of a thousand nicknames. (Peanut. Pumpkin. Pooperdoodle. For a while he was Bucky, short for Buccaroo, because my mother would love to see him become a cowboy.)

I can tell you why I never named my character. A name seemed so limiting. She was simply herself, and I wanted readers to see her as such, without the various limitations a name can inflict. I suppose that was a factor with my son, too. (There I go again–with Sam. It was a factor with Sam.) I didn’t want anyone to ruin it by reminding me of some evil Sam I might be forgetting, after whom I would never name my offspring. I found that when I did mention it and it wasn’t cooed over (Sam?! What a cute name!), I became thrown off and disappointed, much in the same way I’m now baffled when someone meets him and doesn’t go to pieces with adoration. I suppose it’s because he, and his name, are so close to me that I want to keep them close.

The same is true for this fictional character. She has a name now, but I’m not going to tell you. It’s because, more than any other character I’ve written, she is a part of me. In grad school, I actually resisted writing too many of her stories because I wanted a challenge and her voice came almost too easily. Her family situation and life experiences are quite separate from my own, but deep down, she is me. But I think that’s why naming her was so important. Now that she’s named (and her name is not Laura) she feels more like a separate entity. How that will affect her stories in the future, I guess I’ll find out soon.


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