Why Are All the Characters Named Jack or Emma?

Years ago—decades, really—I bought a book called “The Baby Name Personality Survey,” published in 1991. I bought it not to name a child, but to name the characters in a story I was writing. I was in middle school in the early ’90s; yes, I’ve been writing forever.

I discovered “The Baby Name Personality Survey” at my then-beloved local bookstore, the Tudor Bookshop. In 2008, the Tudor closed it doors for the last time, citing “rent issues and the economics of independent bookselling.”

The Tudor sat at the corner of Wyoming Avenue, a main road in my Pennsylvania hometown, and East Union Street. Today on East Union Street, there’s a new-ish Italian bakery called AmberDonia, and whenever I’m “back home,” Stanton and I usually stop by here for a lunch of their Romeo and Juliet wood-fired pizza. To get to AmberDonia, we pass the old site of the Tudor.

Growing up, I loved the Tudor. I spent hours of my childhood browsing the titles on the bookshelves and poking through the display of charm bracelets, and corresponding charms, up front near the cash register. Back at my parents’ house, in my childhood bedroom, one of the dresser drawers (top left) still holds a charm bracelet from the Tudor.

If you’re a fan of “The Office,” there’s an episode (not sure which season, unfortunately) in which a coffee mug featuring the Tudor’s logo is on one of the characters’ desks. When I first saw that episode, I nearly burst with pride for my little bookstore, which was located about 20 miles from Scranton, the location of the fictional, Michael Scott-managed “Office.”

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Bookstores still stock baby-name books, but not “The Baby Name Personality Survey,” from what I can tell. It’s been years since I turned to “The Baby Name Personality Survey” myself. I did think of it the other day, though, as I worked on a story I’m writing.

I needed to name some new characters. They’re secondary characters, and I tend to give my secondary characters more original names than my primary ones. They’re not quite as essential, so more wiggle room exists for creativity (kind of like middle names).

I think this is true for a lot of authors. For example, the name Jack. How many main characters have you read whose name is Jack? “Jack” is relatable, an everyday guy, a “good guy.” Thus, Jack is everywhere, including headlining numerous TV shows (many of which are based on books): Jack Ryan, Jack Taylor, Jack Irish.

Historically female names have a little flair, are a little more fun, are a little varied. While we won’t find a Mary or Emma, say, leading the action in 9 out of 10 plots (not like Jack), we probably will find a female protagonist with a similarly short-and-sweet, not-too-unique moniker: Olive (Kitteridge), Lisbeth (Salander), Eliza (Sommers). To be fair to all the Marys and Emmas out there, though, yours was the name of choice for the heroines in classics like “Mary Poppins” and “The Secret Garden,” as well as “Madame Bovary” and Jane Austen’s aptly titled “Emma.”

In my last published piece of fiction, my main character was Heidi.

Thus, Jack is everywhere, including headlining numerous TV shows (many of which are based on books)…

So I was working on this new story, and I needed to name some secondary characters. As I have for many years now, I turned to Nameberry, which bills itself as “the world’s biggest baby name database” (online, of course). Maybe you yourself used Nameberry as you prepared to welcome a child into your family (or, like me, tried your hand at fiction).

Nameberry is a fun website, and it easily can become a time suck and rabbit hole. Out of curiosity, you might click on the link “Vintage Baby Names.” Thirty minutes later, you find you’ve “Joined the Conversation” on “Unfortunate initials?” or “Katherine, Katharine, or Kathryn?”

OK, admit it: You have an opinion on “Katherine, Katharine, or Kathryn,” don’t you? 😉 No worries, friends; I do too. (Katharine.)

Thanks to Nameberry (with an assist from the Social Security Administration’s “Top names of the 1980s” list), I found what I needed for my story.

The majority of the characters in my story were born in the 1980s. I also was born in the 1980s. (Side note: Melissa comes in at No. 7 on that Social Security Administration list, after Jessica, Jennifer, Amanda, Ashley, Sarah and Stephanie. I’m a product of my time, friends. A product of my time.)

Now, a problem an author has with creating a character who shares similarities to him- or herself (for example, born in the same decade, generation cohort, etc.) is that readers sometimes think the character is the author. This is especially problematic if the author is the same sex as the character, or grew up in a similar setting as the character, or has the same job as the character.

I’ve never been the character in any of my stories, friends. I wasn’t Heidi, for example. I made up Heidi; Heidi is fictional. Experiences from my real life informed my development of the character Heidi, but Heidi does not equal Melissa Leddy, the author.

Still, there are folks who don’t believe authors when they try to explain this. That’s OK; that’s just how it goes.

Because of this issue, though, I try to make all my characters different enough from myself so that people don’t say, “You were Heidi, right?” when they read my work. I also would never name any of my characters Melissa, even if it would fit the story. For an ’80s-bred female character, it’s easy enough to simply go with Jessica or Nicole (No. 8 of the ’80s, according to the Social Security Administration).

Now, a problem an author has with creating a character who shares similarities to him- or herself … is that readers sometimes think the character is the author.

My children are going back to school, very soon. We’re all excited about this…and we also know it’s possible (probable?) that school will need to close again and go remote again, at some point. And at this point, the girls will be back home with me.

My goal, then, is to finish this story before that happens. Finish it, and then get it accepted for publication somewhere. If I’m being completely honest with myself, I would love to get it published somewhere big.

For the moment, however, it’s a work in progress—all of it, from my story to back-to-school plans.

I’m sure there will be a plot twist or two. Conflict, of course. Always some conflict. And somehow, in some way, things will wrap up; “The End.”

Every good storyteller knows the ending doesn’t have to be happy, but it has to be satisfying. Maybe Jack or Emma didn’t get what they wanted—or what they thought they wanted—but there was a journey, there was growth, there was change.

Change for the better we always hope, in both stories and real life.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books on Amazon.com. Short fiction and creative nonfiction writing that’s engaging, witty and from the heart.

28 Quarters in a Ziploc Bag: A Laundromat Story

A sign next to the front door offered a welcome, of sorts: “Use machines at your own risk.” Lines of washers and dryers (front-load, high-efficiency and large-capacity) wrapped around the rectangular space. The voices of Whoopi Goldberg and Meghan McCain filtered through the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh and whirrr-whirrr of the appliances. The sole TV hung overhead, in a corner and turned to “The View.” I don’t watch daytime TV—this isn’t a judgment, just a fact—and I had to Google those names together, “Whoopi Goldberg Meghan McCain,” to confirm exactly which show was on (I’m slightly embarrassed, but only slightly, at my lack of morning-talk-show trivia). 

That day, a late-fall morning, I was at a laundromat, for the first time in a very long time. It’s been a random, persistent convenience in my life that all the spaces I’ve called home have come equipped with a washer and dryer. My parents’ house, where I grew up. The house I rented with a friend, after college. The five addresses my husband and I have shared during our 11 years of marriage, from rental apartments to family homes we’ve owned—every one of them had a washer and dryer. 

I set my pink plastic laundry basket on the white-tiled floor. Overflowing from the basket was a comforter, very much in need of a clean. Which is why I was there, to wash my big comforter in a large-capacity washer. 

I made a fist around the Ziploc bag of quarters in my bag, making sure it was there. The metal on metal clinked and clanked. I had no idea how much it would cost to wash my comforter, how many quarters I would need, and I did something earlier that morning I’m not proud of: I shook some extra coins out of my younger daughter‘s piggy bank, just in case. 

My older daughter noticed, of course, saw me mid-shake. “Mom, what are you doing? Stealing from Anna?” 

“No, no…” 

It had been that kind of morning, already, and it was not even 10 o’clock.

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Clutching the bag of quarters, I peered at the pair of large-capacity washers. Another woman, about my age with similar shoulder-length brown hair, was using both of them. I wondered if there was some sort of laundromat etiquette. I wasn’t sure, so I asked the woman, “Would it be OK if I used one of these when you’re done with it?” 

She nodded yes, then added, “This one has twenty minutes left on it.” The little girl who was with her smiled at me.  

I smiled back, then thanked the woman. “I’ll be waiting over there.” I gestured to a row of chairs under a window, across from the TV, on which Whoopi Goldberg and Meghan McCain now seemed to be exchanging heated words.  

She nodded again, and I retreated to a chair, with my comforter and quarters. 

Besides myself, the woman and her daughter, a few other folks drifted in and out of the laundromat. Two youngish men, in their early twenties. One of them wore a scarf that looked to be more for style than function; they were both hipster types. And then several older women, grandmother types, and one old man. After loading their laundry, the young men passed the time by fiddling with their phones, while the septuagenarians chatted with one another. 

What type might I be, I wondered? “Clueless, But Has Quarters”? Maybe…probably. 

I had brought a book to read, “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up,” a creative nonfiction writing guide. Because when both girls are in school, as they were then, that time is (supposed to be) my writing time. Like many maternally disposed writers before me, though—and all moms in general—“my” time sometimes becomes “theirs.” The grocery store, post office, laundromat. When I find myself running errands for our family, I try to tuck in some writing-related work too. 

Thus, my book about writing. 

I wondered if there was some sort of laundromat etiquette.

When the woman gestured to me that her load had finished in the washer I was waiting on, I headed over, lugging my comforter. I fished the bag of quarters out of my bag. I gazed at the machine. Lots of dials. Lots of options for settings. Aaahh…what do I do? 

“I’m super sorry,” I interrupted the woman again, “but how does this work? Could you help me?”  

She helped me.  

I had 28 quarters in my Ziploc bag, and I inserted every last one of them into the coin slot. Clink, clink, clink. In case you didn’t know, as I didn’t, it costs $7 for one load in a large-capacity washer—at least, it does at that laundromat. More money than I’d thought it would be. 

“Now press that button,” the woman said, pointing to one of many buttons on the machine.  

I pressed that button, and the machine turned on and began washing my comforter. “Thank you so much.”  

The little girl beamed, clearly proud of her mom. 

I had 28 quarters in my Ziploc bag, and I inserted every last one of them into the coin slot…More money than I’d thought it would be.

Unlike me, my sister has lived in apartments in cities for years: Sunnyside, Queens, and now downtown Philadelphia. She’s used laundromats for years too. When I told her about this post I was working on, she said, “I hope the point of your story isn’t that people in laundromats are nice because of course they are.”           

“No, that’s not the point,” I replied.  

Although everyone had been nice. After my comforter was clean, I stuffed it back into my laundry basket. I didn’t have time to dry it because I had to pick up Anna from preschool. (Besides, I was all out of quarters.) The comforter was wet and heavy in the basket. As I was struggling toward the front door, one of the older women walked over and held it open for me. I so appreciated her kindness. 

But what was the point? I kept thinking about why that morning at that laundromat had resonated with me.  

The point is…sometimes I have no clue how convenient my life is. How easy things are, relatively. How much I take for granted—so many things, and the littlest things.  

Since that morning, I’ve been noticing laundromats more. Some have clever names, like Missing Sock and Dirty Harry’s. Others have signs that simply announce, “Laundromat,” as mine did. 

Weeks later, I was flipping through my book, the writing guide. A crumpled Ziploc bag floated out—the bag from the laundromat, the bag with my quarters. I had repurposed it as a bookmark and forgotten about it.  

I skimmed the bookmarked page. The author, Lee Gutkind, writes about the richness of experiences, which offer writers “more material, more reference points, more ideas” (page 237) for their work. I bookmarked that page because I agree.  

You can only learn so much from a book or sound bite. You have to have experiences.  

Even ordinary ones, because they offer insights too. 

Photo credit: Pixabay 

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.