The Facts of Life was a sitcom about four girls and their scraggly old headmistress, Mrs. Garrett. It was a painfully classic 80’s television programs that proselytized and preached lessons of morality to viewers each week. It’s also one of Elysha’s favorite childhood shows, so I hear about it from time to time.
We were chatting about the show the other day and it occurred to me how offensively stereotypical and stupid the names of the main characters were.
Blair Warner, the wealthy, snobbish socialite
Jo Polniaczek, the motorcycle-riding tomboy from Brooklyn
Tootie Ramsey, the African-American, roller skating gossip
Could these names be any more cliché, hackneyed and formulaic?
I have a hard time with names. I think that naming a character is an important part of the writing process, yet I often have a hard time doing so. Occasionally, a name will simply pop into my mind, ready-made and perfectly apropos, as did Martin’s name in SOMETHING MISSING. But more often than not, I find myself scanning baby-naming websites and running through the names of friends and former students in my head, hoping that I will stumble across the perfect one. This is how the protagonists of my second and third books, Milo and Wyatt, were named. In both cases I was scanning lists of names online when I came upon these two, and almost instantly I knew that they were perfect for the character in question.
Milo is a quirky, somewhat odd name that seemed to match my quirky and odd character quite well. It’s also the name of the protagonist in THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, one of my wife’s favorite books, so I liked the homage that I was paying with the name choice.
Wyatt is a vigilante, a man who seeks his own unique and amusing brand of justice. I wanted a name that was uncommon and no-nonsense, and Wyatt seemed to fit the bill. I also liked how the name harkens back to Wyatt Earp, the famous Old West lawman who also dealt in his own brand of justice.
Last names can be even trickier. I have no recollection of how Martin Railsback received his last name. Though it sounds a little silly, I think he was born with it. The character of Martin was so completely and thoroughly downloaded to my brain that he came to me fully-formed, first and last name included.
Milo Slade received his last name from a movie poster that I saw on a Metro North train as I pecked away on my keyboard. I liked the edginess and grit that a name like Slade possesses, and I specifically liked the way it’s juxtaposed to Milo’s first name and his overall character.
Milo is anything by edgy.
Wyatt’s last name changed several times during the writing of the book, and I finally settled on Salem because I thought it sounded right for the funeral home that his family owns.
Salem’s Funeral Home. It had a nice ring to it.
Elysha later pointed out that his last name also caused her to conjure images of the Salem Witch Trials and the ways in which Wyatt’s public persecution is similar to the persecution faced by the adolescent girls of Salem who were unjustly executed for witchcraft. While I love this connection, it was sadly not a conscious decision on my part.
Perhaps my unconscious was at work.
Then again, many of my naming decisions may have been made with the help of the unconscious parts of my mind.
Martin’s first name, it has been pointed out to me by many people (including my former therapist) is quite similar to my own, and Martin and I have a great deal in common (though I didn’t realize it while I was writing the book).
Milo’s name, like mine, also starts with an M, and the last three letters of Wyatt’s name happen to be the same last three letters in Matt as well.
Again, all unconscious decisions on my part but creepy nonetheless.
And naturally, my newest protagonist is named Betty Grape, a name that popped into my head as soon as I placed my hands on the keyboard. And like my own name, Betty’s name possesses a double T.
But not as weird as naming your roller skating African American character Tootie.