Choosing a Name

1918 Poster

I know people who have used aliases, and changed a name, and changed a pronunciation, and buried the old in favor of the partner’s surname, and taken on a nickname. But I have only come across two people who went by a first name only.

In one case, it was a vanity thing, or at least that’s how it looked to me. It was a writer, our paths crossed briefly but at close range, and I got a good look: noisy fellow, insecure, the use of the single name as if his fist pounded on a puffed up chest. I Tarzan.

The other case was entirely different, a middle-aged woman, her aspect pained, her eyes hard to look at, and her voice a little freighted. You could


see she wanted to be free of something, and I wished for her sake that the name change did it, but it didn’t.

A name has to work—in life and in a piece of writing—or it lacks authenticity, which in turn introduces an irritant into the scene, and before long, nothing is working. What kind of authority is held by our selection? What kind of history? What fate, what trajectory have we foisted on our character? A Theodore is not a James or an Ari. An Adolf is an unfortunate choice.

I’m capable of running through a host of names before I find the right one. I won’t go so far as to say that this decision is an all or nothing proposition—well, on second thought, yes I would.

Photo credits: poster, public domain, Google Images; Albatross, stormpetrel1

What’s in a Name?

The novelist, film director, and screen writer John Sayles once told me that if he had his way, he’d name all his characters Ed. It’s so short, he said. He had things to say. Why type out a Sebastian or a Giancarlo when you just want to get to it?

Compare this to the experience of a Chinese friend of mine who went back to the mainland to visit family and returned with, of all things, a new name.

The change came through a consultation with Buddhist monks in the temple near her home, and where she has a relative who is a disciple well immersed in these studies.

Many things go into the naming of a Chinese baby—birth date, time, place, family, the fortunes ahead . . . But this was no baby at the feet of the monks but a young woman, married, working, and with babies of her own. The monks, all scholars, considered how she stood in relation to the five elements—water, earth, gold, wood, and fire.


When she left town, her name was Miao written with three signs for water strung together to signify a vast watery expanse.



Too much water, the monks decided. Wood and fire needed.

Dutiful daughter, she deferred to her mother. Attentive mother, she did what was best for her daughter and took the guidance of the monks. Zhenyan, her new name, has the element for wood and a double fire sign.

Some months have passed and I asked her: has her life changed? Yes, she conjectured, but less as a result of a new name than due to the wisdom of the monks who spoke about tolerance and balance and other Buddhist teachings in the course of their conversation. Still, she loves her new name and feels like it ushered in new times, new destiny.

We are writers. We get to choose. We can go the John Sayles route, and just get to the point, or we can deliberate and decide a character’s entire trajectory through a carefully meditated pick. My preference is in the middle: a name that fits like interlaced fingers but which won’t slow me down.

Photo credit: water – Timo Balk, sxc; wood and fire – Alessandro Paiva, sxc

The Need for Authenticity

I met a young Indonesian man once who worked in the dining hall of a cruise ship and who had an unusual talent for remembering names. Eight hundred, even a thousand at a time—he never made a mistake. If the computer, with its near endless capacity to store and retrieve the tiniest bits of information without hesitation, was not already in existence, one would have to search long and hard for a metaphor to describe this ability.

His name was Imam Harjowarsito Danarekso Riyanto. He shortened it to H.D. when he left home and later converted the initials to Hunky Dory. He liked that his made-up name did double duty, as it answered who he as well as how he was. “Hunky Dory!” he’d reply to either question, his face cracked wide with a smile.

Just about everything is done for you on a cruise ship. It was Hunky’s job to give each passenger a clean tray from the stack waiting at the head of the line, a busy little towel in hand to wipe away any lingering dishwasher drops. The ship’s guests enjoyed him and lined up on his side of the dining hall just for the pleasurable shock of being greeted by name and with such cheer.

Meanwhile, across the ship’s dining hall, another assistant steward, with the same job, was envious of Hunky’s celebrity. Also Indonesian, and playing on Hunky’s trick, he simplified his name to Okey Dokey. But because he did not have the same peculiar gift for recalling a patron’s name, nor was he particularly lighthearted, he did not woo away any of Hunky’s adoring patrons.

For a writer, it was a lesson in authenticity.

Okey would have been better off sitting down, examining his gifts, and building a plan for himself based on his strengths. Everyone has strengths. Instead, he chose to copy something that was not authentic to him, and the results were a little bit sad.

No matter the genre—and no matter art form, really, painter, writer, musician, inventor, whatever the creative undertaking—what you bring to it has to be the authentic you, or it likely won’t succeed. Begin with what you do well.

Photo credit: thumbs up – Davide Guglielmo,; muscles – Andrzej Pobiedzinski; both with stock.xchng