Think of a friend, a family member, a favorite book character. What’s the first thing that pops into your head? Usually a name. We are our names. We embody them like skin. I always find it disorienting when I meet someone whose child is named the same as mine. At the first sound of my daughter or son’s name, everything they are to me--the way their hair smells, the sound of their voice, the feeling of their hand in mine--floods my brain. How could anyone else have that name?
We can’t underestimate how important names are. Yes, people sometimes change their names, but usually it’s because they are changing, or wish they could change, a huge part of themselves. It’s not something anyone does lightly. Think about classic children’s book characters, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, James and the Giant Peach. What if Charlotte’s name was Susan? Susan’s Web. No way.
Before I write, I make a list of all the characters I plan to have in my story, and before I even think too much about who they are, I name them carefully, tenderly, like newborns. I look in baby name books or on the internet. I find out what their names mean. Then I try them on for size. Once in a while I change them, if the character turns out quite differently than I thought. But usually, as they develop, they become their names.
I was thinking about all this because of the teddy bear my son lost 7 months ago. The teddy bear has a name of course. It’s…wait for it…Teddy. Quite a simple name, given by my five-year-old son when he first learned how to talk. For four years, my son went to sleep with Teddy every night. Every day he played with Teddy and told him all his little secrets. Teddy was like a member of our family. One day, last July, we couldn’t find Teddy. We looked EVERYWHERE. After a few days, I knew Teddy was really gone. I told my son, almost in a whisper, that maybe Teddy went on vacation? I was heartbroken for him. He cried the first few nights without him, and then helped me make up stories about all the places Teddy was visiting—the forest, the jungle, the beach. And every time we finished a Teddy story, my son said, “And then he’ll come back.” I nodded, what else could I do?
Seven months later my daughter’s bracelet rolled under my desk. She reached her small hand all the way in the back (you know, to the part where you can’t see if you look under it), pulled out her bracelet, and a very dusty teddy bear. “Teddy!” she yelled and went running over to my son and thrust it at him. When I heard the name, everything came back to me, how Teddy looked, felt, and the particular way my son pressed his face into the top of Teddy’s head. The reunion was sweet and not really that surprising to him. After all, he knew Teddy was coming back all along.
So in writing, spend time choosing your names, and in life, spend time knowing people’s names. Spend time using people’s names. Luckily, we can’t lose those.