I don’t really feel like I know my characters until I know their names. The early stages of writing a book often feel like walking through a crowd at a party, trying to identify smiling faces that look only vaguely familiar across the room. There’s a comfort in knowing someone’s name, an implied closeness. So when my little brother turned eighteen and changed his name, I questioned whether I’d ever really known him at all.
Shannon had always been small, a wisp of a boy with a mop of hair that was bigger than he was. He was picked on mercilessly for years, for his too-petite size and his too-feminine name. He was the smallest kid on the wrestling team—hell, he was the smallest kid in all of his classes—and yet somehow, he managed to be the loudest and most troublesome, like he spent every waking hour trying to prove to the world that he was big.
The day he left for college must have felt to him like a fresh start. A way to become someone new. Someone stronger. He wrapped himself in the name Sean, burying Shannon inside him, expecting someone larger than life to come bursting through. And while I quipped to him that I didn’t know this boy named Sean, I don’t think I truly understood Shannon—his most deeply rooted fears and insecurities, or the acceptance he yearned for—until he chose to become someone new.
My main character’s name wasn’t always Nearly Boswell. Finding her name was a journey that seemed to mirror my brother’s search for a name that fit him inside. Thumbing through old journals and outlines, I could show you pages of ordinary names I considered: Rachael, Kate, Samantha—but none of these names called forth an image that fit the character I was creating. The girl I pictured in my head was inspired by a former co-worker, a single mother of two adrift in the aftermath of a painful divorce, who spent her lunch hours obsessing over the Missed Connections in the paper. She poked fun at the ads, as though it were only casual entertainment, but when she thought no one was watching, all that humor slipped away. She struck me as deeply lonely, as if she secretly hoped one of the ads had been written for her.
This image in mind, I tried on name after name, hoping one of them would ring true and help me see this character more clearly, but none of them fit. Who was she? What was she looking for?
Determined to find the right name, I started with a character sketch, a loosely scribbled outline of physical and personality traits. Her features were similar to, but not quite the same as her father’s, and while her hair was curly, it wasn’t as curly as her mother’s. She was good at math and science, almost top of her class. And she might have felt pretty sometimes, were it not for her second-hand clothes.
I ended up with a list of glass-half-empty words: almost, not quite, just about, sometimes. I found her name at the bottom of this glass. Here was a girl who was nearly.
Nearly. The word held a heartbreaking connotation that made me feel and relate to her more deeply. Because I’d felt nearly at points in my life, too. I remembered the frustration of being a B+ student, the shame of being only worth kisses in secret but not being cute enough to date, and the pain of being loved, but not enough to hold my family together when it was tearing at the seams. Nearly became real, because she existed inside me.
Finally, my character had a name. And yet, something still didn’t fit.
Like my brother, I knew Nearly would never be satisfied to wear a name that mirrored her own sense of inadequacy. She wanted to be more. She ached to be enough. This girl, who dreamed big and set goals for herself despite odds and obstacles, would choose her own nickname, maybe even change it if she could.
And she did. As I wrote, Nearly took the nickname “Leigh”, a name that made her feel stronger and less ashamed. That choice helped me know her more deeply, just as my brother’s choice helped me to understand him. Nearly’s vehement rejection of her own name revealed her motivations and self-doubt. She wasn’t just looking for someone. She was looking to fill the void inside her—to feel whole.
My “Big Idea” revealed itself in this almost-missed connection between the significance of a search in the personal ads and the search for Nearly’s identity: that we are all, in some way, nearly—not just looking for someone else, but seeking to be someone else. Like my brother who wanted to be bigger, Nearly who wanted to be more, and my co-worker pouring over the Missed Connections, we are all searching for our own missing piece.