When I was around 12 years old, my aunt gave me The Very Best Baby Name Book in the Whole Wide World. I don't know why she'd bought it in the first place (she's always been a sucker for a good sale) but when I showed an inkling of interest in it, turning page after page like it were some kind of exciting new game, she said I could have it.
Names are so important. More and more as a writer, I've come to realize this.
In middle school, I would sometimes take up to an hour naming a new character for my work-in-progress entitled Street Game (a novel about street gangs through the perspective of their girlfriends, ha). With every elaborate new addition to this novel, this baby names book became my trusty advisor.
From the meticulous work I did choosing names, I can only conclude that already, I must have understood something about the importance of names that was as of yet impossible for me to communicate.
It wasn't until the end of high school, and my early university days, that naming, as opposed to simply being difficult for me to do, became a paralyzing activity. An awareness of the various layers that make up a person started to take shape for me, and a recognition that each name, first and last, is tied up with a certain history, and with ideas and customs relating to race, ethnicity, religion, even politics and thus from a name, a character's entire assumed or implied experience of the world might be extrapolated.
Because of this awareness, I spent close to half a year not wanting to name any characters at all. There was something frustratingly finite and foreboading about naming. I didn't want to have to consider these extra, harsher layers that fall into tough conversations with the world around us.
So for a while, I had nameless characters. I believed that they could be anything or anyone that myself or the reader wished for them to be, and in that way more easily relatable, and above the pesky, multi-layered history and politics of this difficult, heartbreaking world.
I was wrong. I was scared. Now, I'm back to mostly naming my characters. Not to name them, if I so choose, is an act of intention, motivated by a different reason for each specific story.
So now, what once paralyzed me about naming, I see as a strength, and a tool for characterization.
For instance, names give readers clues about the backgrounds of characters. A Muslim name hints at a possible Muslim character or background. A hybrid name with starkly different first and last names might signal a mixed-raced kid. A married woman and man who do not share the same last name might signal an African couple, or a Quebecois one. I could go on.
My point is I know now that an awareness of history and politics, of the past, and of policies that shape naming, and of race and culture and religion, this is what widens the scope of any given story's meaning and gives it a meaningful place in the world.
And so, this little book still sits on my shelf above my desk. Although I use it less than I once did, it acts as a comforting tool and as a reminder that at the core of every story, is character and context, and in this way, a name that's worth obsessing over, at least for a little while, before deciding.