The Poetry of a Name

Author Tanis Browning-Shelp equates naming a character to naming a baby in a blog for National Name Yourself Day.


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There’s power in naming yourself, in proclaiming to the world that this is who you
are.
— Janet Mock

English director Richard Eyre (Iris) calls naming a baby an act of poetry. I like that. It makes naming seem like a creative moment for the parents. But what about the baby? Apr. 9, 2018 was National Name Yourself Day—an opportunity for people to take matters into their own hands and name themselves for a day.

Just last week I was telling my kids that their Nana and Papa once admitted to almost naming me Bridget when my husband snickered and said: “I get it. They wanted to name you Bridget after bridge, the card game.” Yep, Bridget Browning. Really? Despite living with my parents’ life-long, um, obsession with competitive bridge, I had never made that connection. I sure dodged a bullet there.

My name feels right to me, so I don’t feel compelled to rename myself for a day. But as an author, this got me thinking about how naming a fictional character is very much like naming a baby. It’s also like naming a part of yourself. Getting it right matters.

I’m not sure how other authors do this, but I like to get to know everything I can about my characters before I name them. This gives me an advantage over a parent. Babies can give you little hints about who they are even before they are born; they may move around a lot, they may be nighthawks, or they may respond to certain types of music. But I believe that people grow into themselves and reveal more about their personalities over time. So parents, compared to authors, really are at a disadvantage in that moment.

When writing my stories, my characters sometimes surprise me by engaging in unexpected behaviours or making bewildering decisions along the way. But, for the most part, they stay true to who they are, so the job of naming them feels natural.

Sometimes, a name just pops into my head, as it did with Maryn O’Brien, the hero of my young adult book series. Other times, I pull out my trusty baby name books—the ones we searched when I was pregnant with our own babies—and pour over the list of names to get a feel for their rhythms, sounds, and meanings. I love it when a name jumps off the page and announces itself as the perfect fit. I also love it when I hear a name spoken somewhere out in the world—in a movie or at a coffee shop—and it presents itself as the answer.

Whichever way a name comes to me I feel enormous satisfaction once I’ve named a character. Names aren’t just labels; rather, they’re tied to the truth. Transgender rights activist Janet Mock says: “There’s power in naming yourself, in proclaiming to the world that this is who you are.” As authors, we get to feel that power too. It is poetic.


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Tanis Browning-Shelp lives in Ottawa, Ontario with her husband Andy, and their teen-aged son and daughter. A spirited, active family, they support one another in achieving their individual goals. That’s how Maryn O’Brien came to life.