Uncategorized | February 01, 2012

In the past I have told people that I feel bad for them when they don’t know of any songs that mention their first names. I feel bad that they never feel pseudo-famous the way that I do when Sinead O’Connor sings about a Molly who dies of a fever, but is so committed to pushing a wheelbarrow through Dublin that she continues the task postmortem. I try to downplay how special I feel when The Vaseline’s sing, “kiss kiss Molly’s lips” over and over in a chorus sometimes interrupted by a bicycle horn. I grew up with children’s books where bears and dolls and a girl who likes strawberries all shared my name and the only Molly’s I encountered in real life were usually dogs. My most basic identifier is distinct enough, but has also always loosely attached me to these characters with their own narratives. I’m lucky to like the associations with my name, but wonder about the actual task of naming.

Recently I came up blank when potential baby names were discussed among my peers, but with that daunting reality a far possibility, I found myself thinking about the more immediate choices my fiction friends make when they invent a character and choose its name. Had it occurred to them that naming a character Molly would contribute to some universal Molly narrative? Is there a purposeful distinction between a Brittany and a Britney? Do they consider articles like these or are the implications of Freakonomics moot in fictional story? Are the names associated with time period, ethnicity, class, and gender so engrained that the integration of an appropriate name in a narrative is natural and subtle? I have never made it very far trying to write fiction.

I recognize that consideration for a character’s name varies in importance. Lolita and Romeo are so loaded with an established identity that their use in a story is likely to be a purposeful evocation of those other Lolitas and Romeos. Most of my fiction friends said that character names just come to them and that their only stipulation is that they never use names that they like. This one rule seemed to be the only middle ground between a shoulder shrug concerning a character’s name and using a name like Lolita. When we started discussing possible real life baby names there were rules about the sound and syllables of a name, associations with acquaintances by certain names that could make us groan, and the unspoken desire that our kids would stand out just a little bit on their school roster.

For people who have once or twice referred to their stories and plays as their “babies,” I thought the contrasting name consideration was interesting. Of course I expected that naming a real baby would be more arduous than a fictional character because babies tend to be that way. I like the contrast of inventing an identity for a character with a name that an author doesn’t really like with my own obsession to find a Molly identity in fictional characters. I remember the first time I considered a name for my future offspring. In first grade, after reading the story of a mouse named Chrysanthemum who is teased for her name, I chose it for my future daughter. The beginning of my naming insecurities may be traced back to this moment where I thought I had achieved the perfect balance of distinctiveness and pseudo-celebrity. Chrysanthemum would never have to tack on the the first initial of her last name in class and she could tell everyone she was named after a book. My parents revealed that the mouse in the story was named for a flower and suddenly the teasing seemed justified.

I have never been allowed to name a human baby, but when I do I will obsess over the literary, lyrical, high school nemeses, and nineteenth-century verbs associated with it (Molly once meant “to do women’s work”). I will wonder if it is possible to name a baby after a literary character without invoking a tragic existence or at least requiring that they live out the namesake’s narrative. I would be disappointed in a Walden who couldn’t tear himself away from video games or a Flannery who isn’t even a little bit interested in amputation. I will want a baby that grows up to invent its own identity, but still feels like some bedtime stories were written about them and Little Richard is singing that loudly for them.