The Power of Names

Shakespeare invited us to consider, “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.”  The Bard’s musings on the subject notwithstanding, the truth is that names do hold a fair bit of power in forging our perception of other people, as well as ourselves.

If you are a foreign-born individual who goes about in your adopted land of residence with a first name that points clearly to your nation of origin, you immediately know how vital a role a name can play when trying to integrate yourself with the local population (so much so that many foreigners will give in, and change their foreign-sounding names to something more palatable to the culture they aim to assimilate in).  Although few of us will readily admit to it, we are all susceptible to making generalizations about people we come across in our daily life based on superficial features.  Names are definitely one such feature.  That is not to say that every assumption made about someone based on such features is either wrong, or malicious.  It’s not wrong (factually or morally) to deduce that a person with an obviously Asian sounding name is in some way culturally connected to Asia.  Same with a man named Hans Gunterkind most likely being of some kind of Germanic heritage,  Jean-Pierre Neauvoix being French.  So on and so forth.

(It goes without saying that the contemptible part in forging a preconception about someone isn’t the initial preconception itself, it’s what you do with it from there on forward.  If on recognizing you’re about to speak with Chen Huiyin leads you to assume she is probably Asian before seeing her, no sensible person will raise an eyebrow for that assumption.  If, however, you further take your preconception to assume she is in some way personally inferior to someone who isn’t Asian, that’s where we run into issues of bigotry that will rightly be condemned by much of the public at large.)

Issues of what might be called ethnic names aside (are not all names relatively ethnic to different cultures, one might be inclined to ask here?), there are naming norms within American culture that occasionally shape our interactions with each other.  When you’re in the middle of everyday America and come across the name Kevin, it is unavoidable that you will imagine a man.  Unless you just happen to know a woman named Kevin, but even then you are likely to ascribe it to a rare anomaly.  What if over the course of the next three decades a swarm of new parents decide that Kevin makes for a great name for their baby girls, and the social paradigm shifts so that suddenly you run into more female Kevins than male ones?  Would you easily adjust to the new cultural trend, or still stick to the norm you had been accustomed to of Kevin being a predominantly male name?  If this sounds like an unlikely scenario to happen, think about how the name Ashley in America at the start of the 20th Century changed from mostly male to predominantly female by the start of the 21st Century.

Not to belabor a point past my humble reader’s generous patience, but it would feel disingenuous not to touch on my personal experience here.  Growing up in continental Europe as a boy named Sascha/Sasha the social assumption about it was that my parents must be bland, unimaginative, and possibly even a tad bit conservative in their leanings, precisely because boys named Sascha/Sasha are so common to come across there.  At the time, it formed a personal impression of myself being just another average lad going about my business, similarly to how I imagine an American youth named Michael or David would feel on the matter in contemporary American culture.  When I moved to the U.S. in my early teens I came to find out that my name was somewhat of a peculiarity to my peers; one that definitely demanded further explanation on my part.  Suddenly, I was no longer merely a random guy with an average-to-boring name, I was a random guy whose androgynous-to-feminine name invited further conversation (occasionally schoolyard taunts, too, but I’m pretty good at deflecting unkind commentary and rolling with the punches, so I bear no negative grudges from it).

I would argue that your name is the most basic qualifier of your identity, and people’s reactions to it forms a great deal of your learned behavior when interacting with others.  I can honestly say that the change in perception in how people reacted to my name on moving to the U.S.–as opposed to the reaction I received for it back in Europe–did affect how I carry myself and interact with others to some non-trivial extent.  At least in that I know when I introduce myself to others, I can be sure of two things:  1. I will be pegged as foreign regardless of my citizenship status, 2. I may be asked an awkward follow-up question regarding my name (to which, when I’m feeling lazy, my typical response will be either “My parents were really hoping for a girl, and were surprised when I popped out, dick-swinging and all,” or “I wanted to be able to better relate to women, but Nancy Sunflowerseed sounded too butch, so Sascha had to do”).

Believe it or not, the purpose of this post was not to regale anyone with anecdotes about naming cultures, as a clever ruse to sneak in a dick-swinging joke.  It’s to touch on a greater point about forging better writing habits and being mindful of one’s intended audience’s social palate.  Sooner or later, just about all writers find themselves fretting over picking out the perfect name to convey their characters’ personalities and backgrounds effortlessly to the reader.  And there are definitely right and wrong names one can decide on, for the roundabout reasons stated above.

If you’re writing a story about a street-wise, inner-city black kid, born and bred in the Bronx, but is named Hans Jorgenson Gunterkind, well you better be ready to explain how the hell that came to be.  Same if you’re writing a story about a 15th Century Samurai named Steven.  While clever names can add exotic intrigue to characters, and piece together unspoken–unwritten?–context about their personal interactions with their environments, it can also needlessly distract the reader if it’s not really meant to be a focal point of the narrative.

It’s perfectly fine to be bold and go for something unconventional when you’re crafting your written world, but don’t bend over backwards to convey uniqueness unnecessarily, to the point that it hinders the readers ability to become immersed within the narrative.  A story that has five characters named Mike to show the absurd commonality of the name can be witty and fun, or it can end up confusing and frustrating to the reader.  Take a moment to consider how the greater world you have created interacts with this dynamic, and whether it helps or hurts the story you’re setting out to tell.  Reading practicality should not be dispensed for the sake of creativity; they should operate together to form a coherent story that can be enjoyably read.

You can’t please everyone, and someone will hate your work no matter what or how you write.  Which is why the starting point for all my writing advice is to always start with being honest with every story’s first reader: its author.  And if, as you put pen to paper (or, more realistically, fingers to keyboard), what seemed like a great name in the first outline is becoming harder to work with as the story progresses, rather than forcing the narrative to conform, there is no shame in revising the basics–character names included.

Suck on that, Shakespeare, is what I’m really trying to say here.

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