By Mike Crawmer
Names are funny things. At once memorable and forgettable. Lyrical and unpronounceable. Full of meaning and import on the one hand, vapid and tasteless, like salt-free V-8 juice, on the other.
How long did Charles Dickens fuss and fret before settling on “David Copperfield”? Why did Agatha Christie decide on “Miss Marple” and “Hercule Poirot”? Why not “Sarah Shortbread” or “Avant Maintenant”? Would Laura Lippman be as successful if she wrote about the adventures of “Adele Schlotterbock” instead of Tess Monaghan?
I’ve been thinking about names because I’m still not all that happy with the name I gave to one of my two protagonists. “Andre” originally was “Devlin,” then I decided that “Devlin” had to be African-American, and “Devlin” is not an African-American name. “Andre” is, sort of. Maybe. In some circles. It’s certainly better--that is more resonant, more identifiable with the person--than the name for my other protagonist, his partner Greg. Solid sounding, yes, and one syllable, but oh-so-white-bread.
But I’m comfortable with “Greg,” the name and the fictional creation. “Andre”--or “Dre,” as Greg nicknames him--is still causing me to doubt myself.
Not so with my other characters. I named Greg’s bete noire “Proctor” after seeing that name painted on the side of a decrepit brick building in Lower Greenfield. I dubbed my Eileen a “Shackleford” because it just fit her well and I liked the sound. (There’s that “sound” thing again.)
My day job at an international human resources training and development consulting firm (no other way to describe it in shorthand) requires careful attention to names. Because our products are sold in countries where English--or a reasonable facsimile thereof--is in common use in the business community--the U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa and a few others--the names we use for characters in our case studies and videos must be acceptable in all countries. Conrad, Marcos and Spencer are fine; Blair, Ed, Lloyd and Ike are not. As for women, we can create an Anita, a Jayne or a Rhonda, but Brianna, Cheri, Jeanne, or Paola are no-no’s.
Assigning names is one thing; having to work with the weird and unpronouncable is another. On the third floor of the building where I work, a large crew of assessors deals daily with client companies populated by people with such first names as Chrysostome, Jonantony, Crege, Daquanda, Turron, Trustin (as in “You can ‘trust in’ me,” perhaps?), Taquoila (pronunciation, anyone?), and Jamessa (guess Daddy James wanted a boy and when his wife produced a girl, well, “Jamessa” was born).
Names fascinate me. I love the images that pop into my mind when I hear names like Dorothy, Scarlett O’Hara and Bilbo Baggins. On a personal level, I'm a dismal failure at remembering names. Go figure. Now, give me the last four digits of your Social Security number, and I’m bound to remember it til the day I die. But, your name, sorry, what was that again?