What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, a common text for creative writing workshops, is another book that my fiancée Tara and I have turned to for some “stretching” exercises before writing or to help jump-start the creative process. One super-quick assignment is “Naming Your Characters,” with the editors urging that “the names you choose to give your characters should suggest certain traits, social and ethnic background, geography, and even things that have yet to occur in your story.” The exercise itself asks you to name five characters based on the description provided. Tara and I created our names separately, then compared notes. Here’s what we came up with:
“Petty, white-collar thief who robs his boss over several years”
Tara’s name: Spencer Ratson. My name: Drake Stetson.
“An envious, bitter woman who makes her sister miserable by systematically trying to undercut her pleasure and self-confidence”
Tara’s name: Cissy Gluck. My name: Delores Humphries.
“A sweet young man too shy to speak to an attractive woman he sees everyday at work”
Tara’s name: Bernard Shush. My name: Ernest “Ernie” Walston.
“The owner of a fast-food restaurant who comes on to his young female employees”
Tara’s name: Arnie Cadogin. My name: Norman Fiddler.
“A grandmother who just won the lottery”
Tara’s name: Estelle Gladstone. My name: Eunice Grant.
Down in Atlanta recently, we were talking about the exercise with another writer friend, Brandon, and his girlfriend, Katie, and they contributed names of their own. And since then, Tara and Brandon have been upping the ante (and doubling the creative process) — making up their own character descriptions and challenging the other to match wits with a suitable name. Here’s what they’ve done.
Brandon’s challenge: “A 63-year-old divorcee from the outskirts of New York who is a nosy neighbor, but who is also looking out for your best interest (given that new, too-good-to-be-true guy that you’ve been dating).”
Tara’s name: Mavis Nosegay.
Tara’s challenge: “A middle-aged hairdresser with seven cats and a preference for Nutella. (You can name the cats, too, if you’re feeling ambitious.)”
Brandon’s response: “Christopher (he tries to go by “Crys”) Sharpe. The cats: Stephen, Louie, Albert, Turbo, Cy-Kill, Leader-1, and Mitzy. The first three are named after ex-boyfriends, the middle three are after his kitschy childhood fascination with the GoBots, and the last one is named after his mother, with whom he has lengthy phone conversations every Thursday evening. Mitzy is the half-retarded one who eats the carpet.”
Brandon’s challenge: “A young History PhD scrabbling for tenure who has an old girlfriend come out of the woodwork and claim she’s pregnant with his child.”
Tara’s response: “Richard Oakley Atchey (his “friends” call him Assey). The old girlfriend is Samara Thomas and she wants to name the baby Hawaii because that’s where it was conceived during a drunken night at the Asian Pacific Historic Leaders conference, during which Assey reluctantly decided to sleep with Samara because she was the only conference attendee there who could appreciate his affinity for Tanaka Giichi.”
At this point, Brandon and Tara began copying other folks to join the fun. The latest (and as-yet-unanswered) description came from Tara:
An actress attending an Ivy League school who lies about her family’s wealth to try to fit in with a group of students she thinks will get her places.
I’m gonna try to find a name for that one today (and in the spirit of trying to build up some interactivity on this blog, names are welcome here too).
— Art Taylor