Episode 21: The Name Game
Lindsay talks about her process when it comes to naming characters. It’s much more involved (read obsessive) than one might think…
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Welcome to TFP, The Theatrefolk Podcast. I am Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk. Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
Today, we’re talking names and taking no prisoners or something like that. But first, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Okay, it’s the second week, there’s no news. It’s December! But, what I will say is that you should stay tuned for next week’s podcast where Craig and I curl up by the YouTube fire and talk about Les Miz. I have had a long, long history with this musical. I wore out the tape – yes, that’s how old I am – the tape that I had when I was seventeen. And Craig is kind of new convert. There was a great big concert, a huge concert where Alfie Boe is playing Jean Valjean and one of the Jonas brothers was Marius, and he’s been playing that quite a bit on his iPod.
So, and of course, unless you’ve been under a rock – or you don’t care about Les Miz which is, of course, quite possible – you know that THE MOVIE (in all caps) is coming out on Christmas Day and there has been a lot of talk about THE MOVIE and who is starring in THE MOVIE and I still can’t quite wrap my head around Anne Hathaway as Fantine – it’s not doing it for me. But, you know, who knows? Could be, could be great. In any case, Craig and I are going to talk next week about THE MUSICAL. So, join us for that.
Lastly, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every Wednesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on the Stitcher app AND you can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search on the word “Theatrefolk.”
Episode Twenty-One: We’re Playing The Name Game
I, I have a confession to make. I, Lindsay Price, am very obsessed about the names of the characters in my play. I am very obsessed. I am obsessed to the extreme. Naming is a big part of the writing process for me. It is a huge part, especially at the beginning when I’m just starting to write, when I’m just starting to form this shapeless amoeba into something with a beginning, middle, and end.
One of the first things I do which makes me feel like I’m on the right path as I start writing a play and I start thinking about who the people are in this play is giving them names.
Giving a character a name is like, in a very artsy fartsy kind of way, but it’s kind of like bringing them to life. It makes them seem like a human being, you know. Names are pretty important to us, you know. Whether we like our names, or we hate our names, or our names mean something, or we go by a nickname, or a name can just say so much about a character and about us. And when I’m writing, I want to be able to see and hear that character, and if they’re nameless, it just doesn’t quite work for me – this is my little problem to bear and I just find it’s that much harder to move forward with my writing when my characters are just swimming around in a nameless void, or worse, if they end up with the wrong name. And sometimes, I’ll counter this. I’ll go in the complete opposite direction. I just wrote a play last year called Chicken Road in which, very purposefully, the characters were numbers so then none of them had names and it was very interesting to me how that worked in the writing process. I had to really, really work to visualize these characters and make them individuals even though I was purposefully not making them individuals in the final text if that makes sense.
And sometimes, when I’m writing, it’s really clear when I’ve given a character a wrong name, you know. It comes to light that, as I’m writing it, it’s not a good fit. It’s not a good match. And sometimes my characters, sometimes they go through three or four names to find the right fit. It’s, you know, as I said, it’s obsessive. The name must fit!
And I think I just basically alluded to but this is theatre we’re writing, right? And so it’s important that that naming process is part of the whole part and parcel, and that it’s not just a throw-away thing. I think character names should be symbolic in some way. They have to mean something. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Names could be representative of a personality, or a name could in contrast to their personality. I really like, sometimes, giving, you know, it’s an ugly character, giving them a very pretty name. Or, if it’s a, you know, somebody who’s very, you know, a beautiful person, not necessarily giving them a name that matches, you know. Sometimes, working in opposites is fun.
Sometimes, it’s very suitable to give a character a stereotypical name which either the character lives up to or fights against. We all get a picture in our heads sometimes. When we hear a name, we think a certain type of character, and that can be very useful. That can be very useful in terms of introducing a character. Give them a name and everybody goes, “Ugh. I know exactly what that person is like.” That can be helpful in just sort of jumping a story ahead. I find that extremely helpful in short plays, for example, because then you don’t really have to do much explanation writing. The name says it all.
And it also could be – oh, my gosh, there’s so many things that names could come from, you know. It could be a cultural name. It could be a name that not necessarily tells you something about the character but tells you something about the character’s parents. There’s a lot of reasons why a person names a kid a certain thing. So, for example, par exemple, I have a play called Sweep Under Rug in which there are two sisters and they have very pretty names, Ariel and Miranda. And these are also character names from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. And these names are very specifically chosen because, even though we never meet the mother character – she’s talked about a lot and then, at one point, she actually abandons the house, she runs. And she’s portrayed by other characters as someone who is lazy, who is devious, who is not to be trusted, notable to look after her children. And that’s one view of her. And then, on the other side, there’s this mother whose favourite book is a Shakespeare play and used to read it to her daughters when they were younger and it meant so much to her that she named her girls from this play, you know. She had a one-time love of art. So, it’s something to give pause. You know, people are not always black and white. And it’s a very, very tiny detail, and you really have to know The Tempest to know that’s where the names came from. But it’s not necessary to understand that part of the puzzle to understand the play as a whole. It’s an addition to the big picture. But I knew that and I knew where it came from, and therefore, it made a big difference to me when I was writing and when I was creating these characters and that is something that’s going to help the play. And if it helps the play that means it’s going to help future productions and future audiences.
So, obsessive, these are some of the things I think about because, frankly, the possibilities are endless. And there’s other things too I have to think about when it comes to naming characters. There’s the whole technical aspect of the sound of the name. Again, this is theatre. That means there is no silent reading. That means it’s going to be said aloud. It’s going to be said in conversation. What does it sound like when the name is said emphatically? What does it sound like when it’s said lovingly? Does the name have a short form or an organic nickname? Or, does it have a very harsh nickname which I don’t really want to bring up? I also don’t want too many of the same sounding type of names in a play if I can help it. I think that distracts, you know. So, if there’s a Brittney, I’m really not too interested in there being a Briana and a Brenda – unless it’s a specific choice. Unless having the sound of three “B” names helps the play.
In the musical called Shout, and there is a barbershop quartet called the Buzzy B’s and the group name came about because, well, they all have names that begin with B, so it makes sense, right? In another one, the play that I’m currently working on – it’s very in the beginning stages but it’s going to have a set of fraternal twins. So, right away, I’m thinking about names that start with the same letter. I’m going to go down that route. But these particular characters, they’re secondary characters, and with the secondary characters, it’s important that they’re gender-neutral and that’s another technical element that comes up all the time, particularly in my genre. In the large-cast high school plays, there always needs to be some flexibility with gender so directors can fit the play to the students they have available. So, it’s all a question of writing characters that can be explored in one direction and, equally, in another which is a fascinating puzzle for a completely other podcast.
So, for these characters, I need names that are going to fit if the characters, the twins, are two girls, two guys, or a guy-girl combo. Needless to say, I spend hours – hours, yes – hours on baby name sites. I spend a lot of time on thesaurus.com because I’m looking for different ways to express a character’s personality and maybe I’ll come up with some funky version that letters can be rearranged and turned into a name. I’ll also spend a lot of time on Google Translate because I’ll do the same thing – I’ll look up personality traits and see what the word looks like in another language. Latin is also an awesome place to start which is insanely fun if the play is futuristic or takes place to the left of reality, you know, where human sounding names aren’t necessarily needed.
Another play that I’m working on has a group of main characters and they’re all beginners so I looked up variations of the word “beginner” or “novice” and one word that I came up with which is a perfect sounding name but it’s the word “Tyro” – and I don’t even know if I’m pronouncing it correctly and I don’t even care because it’s just a neat sounding name, regardless of its origin, and I know what it means, and I can say that it means beginner, it means what you are.
Now, going off on a tangent on that, telling people about where the name origins come from is that I spend all this time on names at the beginning of the process, right? So, it’s fair to say that, if I’m working on a play now, like for example I’m working on the first draft of a full-length now, it’s not going to be produced for a year. It’s going to take their time. I’m going to workshop it. I’m going to make you do two, three drafts. It’s going to be a year and it’s inevitable that, whenever a year goes by that an actor will ask me where did my character’s name come from, and there’s always a reason, and there’s always a purpose, but so much time has passed that I will forget the origin story.
By the end of the process, I’m focused on the play as a whole. And, frankly, I don’t have a big brain. My brain is not big enough to handle all this information. My brain spends too much time on useless information. Why should I remember all the important stuff like where my characters names come from? There’s only so much room, character names, go! So, that is always an embarrassing moment when someone asks me and I know it’s meaningful and I know that it’s important and I cannot, for the life of me, remember.
One of the best places I’ve found to find names is the conferences I go to because everyone usually has their name on a big badge hanging around their neck. So, for me, for an observer of mankind, for someone who gathers names, you know, like picking fruit, it’s like Christmas. Sometimes I just cannot contain my excitement and my glee at seeing the most perfect name that I know would fit so awesome in a play. And sometimes, it’s because I just see a wacked out name. I cannot believe what some people name their kids. I just, I get in awe. The worst thing though is when I’m leading a workshop or talking to someone and it really gives the most inappropriate time to whip out a piece of paper and write the name down because what am I going to say? “Oh, do you mind? Your name is so weird. Do you mind if I write it down?” I’ve never been able to figure out how to make that a natural procedure, you know. So then I tell myself, “Oh, I’ll remember it. Oh, I don’t have a piece of paper. I’ll remember it later,” but I never do because I have the small brain with the very small memory. I’m spending my time with the useless information. Why should I remember, you know, the important stuff like writing, right?
So, I was recently at a conference. Came across a couple of very awesome names, let me share a couple with you. Cinnamon – I have seen Basil – Basel or Basil, depending on where you’re from, but Cinnamon which leads very nicely into Brie, which I’ve seen a lot of, but this one was spelled like the cheese and it just feels really weird to me to have your kid named after cheese. There’s Bridle which is just weird and then, companion to that, we have Brindle. There’s Kylene. I saw Daryl for a girl, which doesn’t really weird me out because I know a Michael for a boy, I also know a Kennedy for a boy. I saw a Malinda – not Melinda, Malinda – and I like that one so much I’m working that one into a play, which leads to why do people have to mess with the spellings of names? What is the motivation behind that? Like, “I need my kid to have the special, unique, only one way spelling of Jim.” I don’t know. I’ve seen Lindsay with three Zs, a Y at the beginning, and two Es at the end, and I’m just like, “Okay.”
And that leads me to the standards. I’m always interested in the names that, because we have the wacko ones, there’s the celebrity ones, and then what about the names that just seem to keep on ticking, you know? There’s always going to be a Sarah. There’s always going to be an Anne or an Emily. You know, Brittany is not as old but I think that one’s got staying power. Amanda. The Christophers, Timothys, the John, the James, you know? Are they ever going to go out of style?
I was just thinking about this one recently. I think there’s still a lot of Roberts out there but I haven’t come across the name Bob in forever. And again, I was thinking about that so much, I put a guy named Bob in a play. What are the names that are falling out of favour, you know? What are the ones that are going to be left at the bottom of the pile? Like the Berthas, and the Walters, and the Gertrudes, and the Ethels? Why did those names disappear? Other than they’re not very pretty sounding, I don’t know if that means anything. Is it because parents no longer pass down names as much as they used to? There’s not that generational thing?
So, to end, I think all of this blather that I have imparted on to you would make for an excellent writing exercise. Of course, right? It’s December! Why not? So, if you come across an extraordinary name, in fact, go, search out. It’s really easy. Go on the web and just type in “odd baby names.” Look for an extraordinary name, a name that seems a little more left of centre, a name that you have not heard before, write it down, and think about what type of character would have this name. What personality would they have? And then write a monologue in the voice of that character, based on the personality you feel their name symbolizes. And then, as a companion scene, think about the whole notion of what would lead a parent to give their child a certain names? You know, is it a family name? A surname on the mother’s side? Just because? Is it tradition or anti-tradition or what?
So, write a scene between two parents-to-be who are deciding on their soon-to-be-born baby’s name and one of the parents wants to use a family name that’s far from popular, that’s very traditional.
And that’s where we’re going to end. That’s it. That’s all. Take care, my friends. Take care.