What’s in a Name?

Nancy Flynn Apostrophe Blog Archive, Writing

The Apostrophe Blog

Musings on Writing and Life.

To name oneself is the first act of both the poet and the revolutionary. When we take away the right to an individual name, we symbolically take away the right to be an individual.
—Erica Jong

“Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully. “Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: “My name means the shape I am—and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.” So wrote Lewis Carroll.

Characterization is the lifeblood of fiction for many readers—and writers, too. Oh, I’m seduced by the twists and turns of plot as much as the next person. But time and again, what I’m most drawn to when reading is the effect that events have on the story’s characters.

According to The Fiction Dictionary compiled by Laurie Henry, a few basic techniques go a long way to helping the writer create strong, highly individual and believable characters—description, both physical and of the characters’ actions; dialogue; and interior monologue. But what about the initial idea for a character, whether for a story or a poem? Where does that come from?

Recently, a friend passed along a fundraising e-mail from the Hope Flowers School in the West Bank city of Bethlehem in Palestine. The word “hope” itself has gotten much airplay of late—from Barack Obama’s speeches and his campaign to Sean Penn’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Harvey Milk in the recent Gus Van Sant movie, “Milk.” And flowers? Who doesn’t love them?

I immediately fall in love with that name, Hope Flowers. It’s a sentence full of promise for children, especially in light of the fact that the school’s mission is to teach peace and democracy while building community in a violence-ravaged corner of the world. But mostly what I couldn’t help thinking was: What a great name for a character!

Before I know what I’m doing, I dive right in and start asking the basic who, what, when, where, and why.

Who is Hope Flowers?

At first, I think she’d be hopeful, like her name. But no, that’s too easy. As an aspiring fictional presence, she’d be more likely to rebel against the hope part of her name, maybe even becoming downbeat and depressive and curmudgeonly.

What does my aspiring misanthrope with the mellifluous name wear? 

Dresses from the 1950s bought at thrift stores, in loud, vibrant prints that show off her uncommonly tiny waist. She’d either wear tiny flats in brightly colored leather, again bought at thrift shops if possible to color-coordinate with her dresses. Or those lace-up Doc Marten boots, always in black, the only bit of color on her feet the crazy herringbone pattern of her shoelaces.

When was Hope born and where? Can a character’s name help a writer figure out that?

I have long thought yes. It might seem right to make Hope a California child of flower children, born in 1969 or even into the early 1970s when the back-to-the-land movement was in full flower. Maybe that’s too obvious. But it’s not at all unlikely that one of her parents could have changed her or his last name to be Flowers. I knew a whole crew of people back in Ithaca, New York who were members of a religious cult called Yea! God and changed their names to the likes of All and Miracle and Splendor. And just a few years ago, I ran into a Twinkle and a Greenpeace and a Jennifer Juniper during my owner-worker shifts at the Corvallis, Oregon First Alternative Food Co-op.

So maybe my girl should be the Hope Flowers of Millbrook, New York where Timothy Leary and his entourage of wild-eyed, acid-crazed maniacs had much fun and games experimenting with LSD and other hallucinogens way back when. That’s definitely an auspicious, potentially generative set of “roots.” 

Where does Hope live now?

I like to think she was once a wanderer. But lately, she’s settled down, at least temporarily. Maybe she’s migrated to a small, dying town where real estate is cheap so she can set up shop, step off the grid of culture and big money, keeping life simple so she can do her art. A few weeks back, I read in the New York Times that this is already happening in many abandoned neighborhoods of Detroit, artists buying houses for below cheap and bringing them back to life while planting urban farms in the weeds that have broken up the asphalt seas that used to be of city parking lots. What would Joni Mitchell sing about that—tear up a parking lot to put in a garden paradise?

In my view, deciding on a setting is one of the trickier and more decisive elements of character creation. This is one area where it can be easier—and cheaper—to stick with a place you already know. Unless, of course, you’re flush enough to fund the travel for the research needed for that Buddhism-inspired novel you just had to set in the Kingdom of Bhutan…

What does Hope do for work?

With a name like hers, surely she’s some kind of artist. This might be the way she counteracts her drift to the melancholy and the dark. Let’s have her make photo album collages out of photographs she finds in junk stores, past generations of lost and anonymous family members no one could remember or ever knew the name of, sent off with the auctioneer when they were getting ready for the estate sale when the last of a grandmother’s generation, let’s say maiden Great Aunt Bessie, died.

Hope finds these photos for cheap in dusty corners of secondhand shops. If she’s lucky and finds an intact album, she’s very careful in the way she disassembles it, in the pen she chooses to calligraph the stories she writes below the photographs on every page. Hope feels like she’s running a rescue operation, a safe haven shelter for refugees, for lost and abandoned souls whose families turned them loose, unthinkingly cast adrift. In some cultures, it is believed that the camera is a soul-stealer. Then, too, it’s often said that the eyes are the windows of the soul. Hope uses colored pencils to color in the eyes of every person in every one of her found photographs. She gives some of them eye colors that don’t exist in real life. That’s her concession to whimsy and élan. Because with a name like hers, surely she has plenty of je ne sais quoi and restless pizzazz.

What does Hope do for fun?

Surely, she has to grow some kind of flowers. Roses because they are so persnickety and complicated? Or maybe that’s her Achilles heel—in spite of her name, no green thumb. And let’s say she also prefers the music of her parents. Maybe she inherited their LP collection when they died in a car crash or moved to Vancouver, British Columbia because they’d finally had just about enough of George W. Bush. So she listens to old jazz on red vinyl 78s that she plays on an old Victrola that also came by way of a Great Aunt Nola who may or may not have been her own kin. Or maybe, too, eight-track tapes because people put them out in boxes marked “free” on the curb. And, too, early rock ’n’ roll from Sun Studios and those freaky, long-forgotten experimental groups like The Fugs and The Incredible String Band. Our Hope is anything if not eclectic. In fact, morning becomes eclectic with this girl. From her yoga poses on the wraparound front porch of her house to whirling dervish barefoot dancing under Chinese paper lantern lights in her back yard—Ms. Flowers already has the tongues wagging in her small town…

You get the picture.

And so my portrait of Hope, an artist living cheap (for now) in a dying Rust Belt town, grows. I’m not yet sure about so many details including the rest of her family, her love relationships, whether or not she went to college or keeps a pet. I guess at this point in the musing process, I’m trusting they will emerge when needed.

Some writers believe you have to know every detail about a character’s life—her past, present, and future—in order to make her convincing and empathetic on the page. Others say character-creating is a bit like playing God. For me the process is often much more serendipitous and wacky. 

Right now, all I know is that my simple fascination with the name of a school has sparked my imagination. And that I want to keep going, want to give my new creation a world of her own to run around, a world where she can get into trouble and hopefully catch a few lucky breaks. A life in which she can grow up and out of messy and into wiser and deeper and probably (like the rest of us) more resigned—all of this on the two-dimensional page.

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet to Romeo in Act II, Scene ii of the eponymously-named Shakespeare play. Yes, but would that Rose get up and dance? I can already say with certainty that Hope Flowers, my character-in-the-making, most definitely would cut a mean rug. And she would definitely head to New Orleans to mask up for Mardi Gras…

The public domain image above is from an 1898 newspaper insert illustration of the “Comus” Mardi Gras parade float in New Orleans.

Nancy Flynn
Follow me
Latest posts by Nancy Flynn (see all)