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.

water

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

wood

fire

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