Name Theory: Name Change is a Purple Herring

I love names. I love thinking about character names. And I believe in the power of a great name.

I also believe that people should be able to choose the name they wish to go by, whether that is their middle name or a quirky nickname or what have you (although I don’t personally like promotional names like goveg.com or disrespectful names like calling yourself God). People should be given some level of control over their own appellations.

However, characters should generally stick with a given name.

Several times when I’ve been naming characters the writer would say, this isn’t the characters real name but what he or she changed it to.

Why?

What is wrong with the character using their given name? What could possibly be served by the character having more than one name? And, why would the readers care?

Most often, when a writer said that their character was not going to use his or her given name, the reason seemed to be based more on the writer’s desire to make the character special and unique rather than there being something in the story that compels the character to use a different name. This comes across as both lame and self-aggrandizing on the part of the writer.

Jason Bourne has a reason for using a name that was not his given name: He doesn’t remember his given name, he hasn’t used it for many years and doesn’t even remember who he was when he did use that name, and he needs to figure out who he is and who he plans to be before he can chose who he is going to be and what he is going to be called.

Most characters are not like Jason Bourne. Most characters know who they are, where they came from, and where they hope to be going. And most characters should just stick with the name their mommas gave them (with maybe a simple nickname sometimes for variety).

The name change should be very rare, especially if you plan to explain it to the reader, and it should be something that matters to the story being told.

So, perhaps, a young wannabe actress who was named Frances Saltalamacchia tells everyone her name is Francesca Salt, and only divulges her true name when she receives a birthday check from her grandmother, who is also named Frances Saltalamacchia. The wannabe actress has a reason for wanting to use a more appealing name, but she learns that a name change doesn’t change who she is or where she came from.

If the character’s name had been, let’s say, Amanda Gray, and she was not an actress but instead an entry level administrative assistant at a business publication and only wanted to be called Francesca Salt because “that’s the real me” or some such nonsense, then the writer should just give up. The name change is not important to the story and shouldn’t be written about (even if secretly the writer decides this is part of the character’s backstory), and the reader is not going to care about this detail because in writing it doesn’t matter who you think you are so much as who you express yourself to be (show don’t tell).

Characters with name changes need to have valid, story-involved reasons for the change. Otherwise the change is just a purple herring: Only there to stand out and show how fabulous the writer is.

Keep the name changes for the characters who need them, or for yourself.

In fact, when I was 5 years old I told everyone to call me Candy. I didn’t know it was a stripper name. I thought it was fun and cute. Not that I want you to call me Candy. Actually, that’s a detail best left on the editing room floor of my life.

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