When the barista asked me for my name, I was tempted to say ‘Amarantha’.
Amarantha is the name of the main character in the short story “How Beautiful With Shoes” by Wilbur Daniel Steele, which I’d just read.
“Marion,” I said. She wrote it on the cardboard cup as ‘Marine’.
Marine is tall, dark haired, elegant, with striking dark blue eyes. Everyone does a double take when they look into those eyes, even people who know her well, though very few know her really well.
She wears slim skirts, killer heels. High-powered, or at least on her way to being high powered. She has efficient relationships and rarely loses her cool. This is not natural, it was hard come by as she was born a revolutionary, a rebel.
She has a curious gait, a loose limbed, uneven stride as though she’s picking her way over uneven territory – a pitted sidewalk or a tangled moss-veined path through a tropical forest. This gait is the result of a fall when climbing out of her bedroom window one teenage night. She’d broken her leg on the grouping of gnome statues in the flowerbed below and, refusing to give in to her parents by calling out to them for help, she lay there all night, in pain, on the increasingly cold and dewy lawn. By the time the newspaper delivery guy caught sight of her as the newspaper arced from his hand towards the front door, she knew she could bear anything.
My mind jumps back to Amarantha. We often do what I’m doing, intuitively create a character who seems appropriate for a name. Or we might search for a name appropriate for a particular character.
In “How Beautiful With Shoes,” Steele does the opposite.
Amarantha is no exotic or poetic beauty as one might expect from such an exotic, poetic name but a “flat-faced”, “broad-fleshed, slow-minded”, “wooden girl”.
Most people call her Mary. Her lover shortens this to Mare, and handles her much the same as he handles the farm animals they are both familiar with in their daily lives. The dangerous escaped murderer “loony”, Humble Jewitt, falls in love with ‘Amarantha’.
The play between the girl’s names allows for a lot of movement and tension in the story. We know Humble Jewitt is not seeing who she really is, but is she really the Mare her lover sees? Who does she think she is? And is the girl at the beginning the same one at the end?
So, what if I work against my first understanding of Marine?
Marine is a dumpy lumpy young woman, who looks older than her years. Her parents (for whom she cooks four times a week) have fallen into the habit of calling her Mar, but colleagues at work often refer to her as ‘The Marine’ because of the rolling way she walks, the result of a fall when she was climbing out of a window in her teen years. Watching her coming towards you down the corridor you imagine someone who’s just got off a ship after many years at sea, and see in that rolling walk and broad hips and shoulders a bruiser, someone spoiling for a fight, shoulders raised, fingers curled in as though ready to plant anyone in her way a punch in the face. You flatten yourself against the wall to let her by, avoiding looking her directly in the eye. But if you did, you’d be surprised. Those are not the eyes of a fighter. They are blue, a startling deep blue, and they almost look frightened.
Now I have created a space for exploring the two versions of Marine in search of who she is and who she might become. Who sees her in which way? Which Marine is she living out, which is lurking below the surface? What does she see when she looks in the mirror? Why is she thinking about this now? (I’ll let the physical differences work themselves out as I work on the story.)
What stories have you read in which the name of a character contradicts his/her personality? Did the character change in the course of the story? How? Have you experimented with this idea yourself?
What would this mean for a Joy? Or a Patience? Or a Benedict? Slim? Leo?
Check out names and their meanings
Of course, you don’t have to work with literal opposites, you can simply work with and against your intuitive impression of a name.