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What’s in a Name?

phonebooks by prentz

"Too Many Phonebooks" photo by prentz

Eden.  Jax.  Greenlee.  Markko.  Soap opera names; exotic, outrageous, sometimes unforgettable enough to find their way into mainstream American life.  How many 28 year-old Lukes and Lauras do you think there are today?  If you search the internet for baby names, you’ll find tons of websites devoted to soap opera names.

Choosing the right name for a character on a TV show is critical.  It helps define the character’s personality.  The name Slade suggests danger whereas Joey sounds like your good buddy.  Mary’s probably a sweet girl, but Jezebel’s trouble.  When you add someone new to a forty-year old soap opera with a history of roughly 1,000 characters over the years, coming up with an original name can be a challenge.  Over the years, I’ve found my own ways to meet it.  Sometimes I name characters to honor people in my own life.  On One Life to Live, lawyers Alex Cody and Morgan Guthrie were named for my sons.  Their high school directory has provided names like Margay and Grayson and Asher.  For their school’s charity fundraiser, I used to auction off the right to have a one-shot under-five character named for the highest bidder.  When the last winner gave me a really hard time because she didn’t like her namesake’s characterization (even the audience has divas), I abandoned the practice.

Friends and family get a kick out of having their name loaned out to a television character and I’ll confess to some subtle brown-nosing by occasionally naming characters for my children’s schoolteachers.  It wasn’t easy to work names like Ms. Takenaga and Ms. Kasarjian into shows, but it was worth it.

There’s a game in which you can come up with your own soap opera name by combining your middle name with the name of the street you grew up on.  My soap name would be Margaret Huron, not a bad name for a character.  Of course, city dwellers might end up with names like Jake 68th Street or Brianna Central Park West, but it’s still fun.  Try it.

"let your mouse do the walking" by 19melissa68

"let your mouse do the walking" by 19melissa68

The most baroque way I ever named characters was via a surreptitious game I played with a fellow writer at Another World who by chance had noticed that in several cases if you combined one character’s name with another, they formed the name of a Major League baseball player.  For example, we had a Gary and we had a Carter … hence, catcher Gary Carter.  We had a Joe and a Morgan which together formed second baseman Joe Morgan.  Albert plus Belle made outfielder Albert Belle. Knowing I’m a rabid baseball fan, he shared his observation with me. The next time I had to name a character, I mischievously did so with this in mind, naming him Frank to go with an extant character Thomas, wondering if my co-writer would notice.  He did, and then one-upped me, calling someone Jim to go along with a Palmer already on the show.  Not to be outdone, I made sure our Paul could be paired with a new character, Blair.  No one else knew what we were up to and we kept up this name game for about a year when my partner in crime left Another World for a different show, but not before introducing a Professor Dawson as a companion to a character named Andre.

To my knowledge, the fans never figured out where our inspiration came from.  Despite the private intrigue, we always maintained the integrity of the show and the names we created had to work on their own.  To the audience, the characters are people, their names integral parts of who they are. And if people are naming their children for characters I write for, if there are Hannahs and Dorians and Reeds and Sierras out there because people heard those names on their soaps, I’m proud.  Almost as proud as I am of the “A’s” my kids got from Ms. Takenaga and Ms. Kasarjian.

3 Responses to “What’s in a Name?”

  • Gregorio:

    Ha, very funny and interesting. But… your name game could be made more interesting by doubling or tripling it. For example, you have a Brett, and a George, making George Brett. But could you also have an Eliot, making George Eliot? You could turn it into a game of baseball players AND writers. You could do the same with movies stars, politicians, etc. The possibilites are endless.

  • Rachel:

    As a baseball fanatic, I really get a kick out of what was done on Another World. I never miss an episode of One Life To Live, but I have become familiar with the characters of other soaps. I’ve always found it funny that As The World Turns has a character named Luke Snyder, one letter away from the baseball immortal Duke Snider. I’m blanking out on it at the moment, but I do remember another current TV show (I think probably OLTL) that had characters with combined names eerily similar to a couple of baseball players.
    I really enjoy seeing those characters with quirky names, especially when they are somewhat culturally familiar to me, like Eli or Asher.

  • I find it interesting that names are so cyclical. What were considered “old” names just a few years ago are now “back in style” and all the rage. I guess it’s kind of like clothes.

    What will be the popular names 50 years from now? I’m sure things will evolve, to some degree.

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