What's In A Name

A friend of mine is a history/war buff, and he recently began a minor campaign to keep alive the memory of the only two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor. According to my friend, this man also singlehandedly stopped an attempt to overthrow F. D. R. and was the first to warn of the military-industrial complex. I am speaking, of course, of Major General Smedley Butler. I’m not saying it was the name Smedley alone that has kept Mr. Butler locked in historical obscurity, but I am saying it doesn’t help. As a writer, whom would I choose to name Smedley? A comic villain? Maybe a comic hero, á la the Cohen brothers? But the man who saved the presidency? Unlikely

Now that I think of it, I was once listening to an NPR interview with a spokesman for the energy industry. This was during the Bush administration, and the spokesman was explaining why it was a good idea to have oil companies advising the vice president on the country’s energy policy. Nothing nefarious here, he said. All this talk by liberals about an oil/Bush conspiracy was ludicrous. The spokesman’s name? Daniel Evil. I actually got to hear the interviewer sign off, “Thank you, Mr. Evil.”

You can’t, as they say, make this up. Literally. No matter how cartoonish you like your villains, unless you are penning a Mike Meyers parody you have probably stricken Evil from the list of possible surnames. The problem is our readers have imaginations and they like to use them. Though they may not know it, this is part of why they read. Your narrative choices fire the reader’s imagination to fill in what you cannot. Name a hero Smedley and you are likely stuck with whatever bucktoothed, cowlicked rube your reader first pictures before you describe his firm brow and handsome jaw.

Likewise, naming someone Evil deprives your reader of the chance to use his imagination. No matter how villainous our villains, we aren’t allowed to tell the audience the character is a villain in their name—all readers want that moment when they realize, “Oh. Darth Vadar is a bad guy.” It is the rule of Show Don’t Tell. Writers discover and so do readers. We suggest evil or virtue through imagery and action because good stories is always a joint effort between the writer and the reader.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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