Hola, me llamo . . .
I filled in my name big and purple on the adhesive nametag and stuck it on my shirt, the one with the bold graphic of Totoro, a Japanese anime character. Anime always serves as a good conversation starter when I lead writing workshops at the local teen center.
That evening, 16 young writers were seated around the long wooden table. At each seat was a clipboard with bright green paper to write on as we explored ways to build good characters in our stories. And at each seat, a nametag. “DJ” already had hers stuck to her forehead, her strawberry hair swooped down on either side.
As much as I hate the “tell us your name and something about you” exercise, I planned for this time of introduction to be a little more creative.
In addition to talking about how names say something about fictional characters . . . and about us . . . I had decided to let each student offer a fictional name instead of sharing their actual name. That would be fun, right?
“Danita, take that off your head and write your real name,” the staff person instructed, grabbing a new nametag from the table and handing it to the girl.
“But I hate my name,” DJ said, peeling the bold and proud pseudonym from her forehead slowly, like a bandage from a wound.
“We need you guys to use your real names,” the staff person explained, marking something on his own clipboard. It didn’t have bright green paper.
So much for my icebreaker game. I wasn’t going to be a fifty-something-year-old rule breaker in an anime t-shirt and Converse sneakers. So I adapted.
“Let’s start with introductions. Tell us your name . . . and, if you want, tell us what your fictional name would be if you had one.”
“Angus Olive Fiorella, because Angus is my dad’s middle name since he’s Scottish, and Olive is my mom’s middle name, and Fiorella because my grandmother is from Italy and her name is Fiore which means flower, and when I was born she called me her little flower. . . . Someone told me it’s stupid to have three first names.”
“My fictional name would be Maximillian the Magnificent, because that’s my character’s name.”
The girl on my left leaned closer and whispered, “Does Celeste mean the sun?”
“My name is Danita, but I hate it, so I like Danny or DJ!” DJ pointed to the crinkled nametag stuck once again to her forehead.
After all the introductions, we talked about character development. What makes a character who they are?
“What makes you who you are?” I asked.
Hands popped up. The kids offered suggestions in the areas of beliefs, environment, physical traits, culture, family relationships, and, of course, names. We talked about how names hold cultural meaning, how they connect us to family history, how they come with a backstory of choosing . . . and for writers, how we can use them to tell the reader something important about the main character.
In his Newbery Medal award-winning novel The Crossover, Kwame Alexander opens the book with Josh, the main character, telling us his name and explaining how he got the nickname Filthy McNasty. In less than 300 words written in free verse we learn:
- That Josh is messy and eats in bed.
- That his father likes jazz, and Josh loves basketball.
- That Josh has a good relationship with his father and respects and loves him.
- That he is embarrassed by his nickname. But as he gets older and starts “getting game,” nickname name takes on a new meaning.
- And that maybe this foreshadows a change in him.
Beyond Fiorella and Max and Celeste and Danita/Danny/DJ understanding the importance of naming their story characters, I also wanted them to understand something about themselves, and maybe even about each other, as they shared their names and their stories—both the real life ones and the fictional ones, but all of them true.
The teens around the writing workshop table that evening chose new names that either expressed something about themselves they valued (even if others didn’t) or that they aspired to be:
Beautiful. Magnificent. Shining.
The importance of naming is evident throughout Scripture. We see how names express family lineage and relationship to God. But one of the most stunning aspects of names in the Bible involves God and Jesus renaming Bible characters such as Abram/Abraham and Saul/Paul. Abraham and Paul may not have chosen these names for themselves, but God wasn’t simply doling out cool nicknames. As the perfect and all-knowing Father, he was naming the men what He knew they would become. All of us go through life with a name someone else has given us. We either love, hate, or are indifferent to that name for any number of reasons. But as children of God, we have also been renamed because we are becoming new people.
God has called us by name—Forgiven. Redeemed. Beloved. And we are His.