When writing a new story, I choose the characters’ names without serious consideration. I pour my energy and focus into the plot and story development instead. When I read books, I don’t dwell on names either. They are what they are, and I accept them without thought.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if perhaps I should devote more energy into what my characters call themselves. Every so often, I come across a story, a television show, or a movie and I see the impact a name can have on a character. Or does the character embody the name?
How important is a name?
Let’s take my favorite series, Mad Men, soon to start its seventh and last season (April 13th – Woot!). The lead, Don Draper (for those of you who haven’t had the luxury), is a suave, gorgeous, advertiser extraordinaire. Sure, he’s a heavy smoker, drinker and total philanderer. Yeah, he’s a shitty husband. But he’s ultra cool. And I root for him every week.
Why? Because he’s Don Draper.
Early in the series, we found out his real name is Dick Whitman and that he stole the identity of a fallen soldier during the Korean War. I’ll be honest, when I thought of Don Draper as Dick Whitman, I was crushing on him a tiny bit less. Flashbacks as Dick even showed his demeanor as not quite so suave, or confident. When he became Don Draper, he adopted the personality to match his calling.
Let’s leave Mad Men for a moment and consider Edward and Bella (of Twilight fame). Would we have rooted for the couple if Stephanie Meyers called them Otis and Helga? Hmm. Perhaps not.
How about Christian Grey and Anastasia? I wonder if half of the women in America would have pined for the ultra rich, BDSM-addict if EL James called him Sheldon or if he seduced young Mary.
“Alexander the Great.” Strong, powerful, intimidating. Okay, now roll “Harold the Great” on the tongue. For me, not the same impact. I picture Harold with a purple crayon, wearing a onesie.
Rocky is a hell of a strong name. Put the same muscled guy in a boxing ring. Call him Gilbert. Gil-bert! Gil-bert! What do you think? Gilbert Grape is the perfect name for a troubled boy, but a fighter? Er, no.
Can anyone but Don Vito Corleone make an offer not to be refused?
What about Harry Potter? Totally can’t picture a Maximus or a Hannibal with round eyeglasses and a broom. But I can see Maximus fighting lions or Hannibal eating people. Dirk Diggler from Boogie Nights? Okay, let’s not touch that one.
Back to my favorite advertising executive. It’s his name. Don Draper. It’s strong, he’s cool, and okay, he’s gorgeous. But I’ll tell you, no amount of hair gel in the world would help the man if he called himself Dick Whitman. I’m just sayin…