Nominative Determinism in Directorial Method
“What is in a name? Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?”
Directing is the act of interpretation. In examining a story every element of the text has the potential to become a tool for the sculpture of your essential dramatic purpose. Obviously you identify what you want the audience to experience and pursue this as vigorously as you can. Whether taking the conventional literary route of expressing theme and message or the more visceral cinematic route of expressing tone and mood, the task of almost all film craft is ultimately the same – to express articulately and purposefully.
In the narrative form, one theory of some consequence that has fascinated me recently is nominative determinism. Nominative determinism posits that the name given to a person has far reaching and powerful perhaps even prescient consequences. One of the great comic examples of nominative determinism is Johnny Cash’s song “A boy named Sue.” Cash tells the story of a boy who was named by his father with a girl’s name. The boy sets out to be as masculine as possible, to drink and fight from bar to bar across the world seeking out the man who named him Sue. When he finally encounters his father in the midst of the confrontation it is revealed that his father knew that he wouldn’t be there to raise him. His father’s hope, was with a name like Sue a boy grows up hard and fast and becomes a man.
Something about nominative determinism isn’t foreign to us at all. We all intuitively receive impressions about people’s names and perhaps even occasionally wonder how something so intimately connected to the person could have affected their upbringing and their experience in the world. We are often intrigued by parents who name their children bizarre and abnormal names. We wonder what they experience on the playground growing up. We have some kind of intuitive awareness about the power or potential power of a persons name. Like casting a spell, the name of a person seems to possess some intuitively powerful quality. Dale Carnegie famously talks about the power of a name in his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” It is Carnegie’s observation that “a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Our own personal relationship with our name almost certainly immediately confirms this observation.
The power of a name though is not something new or unheard of. The ancients almost universally recognized the importance of names in the upbringing of individuals. In both Greek and Chinese cultures the name given to an individual was said to have a huge impact on their destiny. In mythologies across cultures the names of characters almost always have some bearing on their quality or are reflective of their destiny.
The point I’m making is that there is a very power tool in the name. Yes, a rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but in naming a character or a flower, you are imbuing into that character both a quality of expectation based on context and based upon the sound and nature of the language used. The degree of subtlety or the nature of your determinism is completely up to you, but I think it is a distinctly important part of the directorial process to let no stone go unturned. If I give a character a name, I want to be able to be held accountable for that name and for it’s expression of the particular themes I am chasing after.
It is my belief that the methodology appropriate to storytelling is one that is as all encompassing as possible, one that explores every avenue for the potential of expressive, rich, meaningful, depth. The name is a part of that process, and whether incredibly subtle or painfully obvious in it’s application, the power of the theory of nominative determinism in expressing some aspect about your characters and the themes of your story is potentially a powerful avenue worth exploiting. Don’t surrender this (or any) tool to the accident of absent-mindedness.