Thursday, April 2, 2009

What's In A Name?

Yes, we’ve hit a bold new level here at the ranty blog. People are making requests for me to pontificate about things. Well, one person is. Still, there’s only about seven of you looking at this, so that still puts it up around 14% of the readership giving feedback and asking for specific topics to be covered.

Anyway, by request, let’s talk about nomenclature, as the fancy folk like to call it.

As a wise man once said, all things that men fear have a name. To expand off that, pretty much everything has a name, especially in the world of fiction. Try to write for more than a few pages without naming something and you’ll see how difficult it gets. The unnamed thing may be scary as hell, but it’s also very difficult to write about. So we give names to the things that scare us (even if that name is just ‘It’) and to the characters who fight those things, and even to the people who just stand on the sidelines, oblivious and unaware.

Now, one school of thought is that character names are specific and symbolic things. That a writer has a very specific reason for naming him John and her Elizabeth. They hint at a character’s true nature, or perhaps they’re grim hints at their ultimate fates. Said school is why that character has a Shakespearean name, this one’s named after a philosopher, and that guy’s name is an anagram for “other man.”

I’d also like to take this time to point out the fun of having characters be all-too-aware of their name and what it symbolizes. In the opening of Ex-Heroes, one of the characters laments the fact that his parents hung him with the name George Bailey. If nothing else, in these cases you can assure the audience that you’re well aware of the symbolism-laden name you’ve given your character. Allow me to demonstrate with a quick snippet from a story I’ve been poking at for a while.

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Some poor bastards are cursed from the day they arrive in the world. They’re born into a certain family, with a distinguishing feature, or perhaps get hung with a poorly-chosen name, and that’s really it for them. One such poor bastard, submitted for your approval, is Andrew Sleight.

With a name like that, you’d think his life had been planned from the start. On paper, it even reads like the start of a bad novel. Andrew was abandoned and never knew his parents, getting his name from the officer who amused him with shell games and coin tricks until child services arrived on the scene. He slid invisibly through the foster homes and orphanages, and had a brief brush with crime at the age of fifteen which is now sealed away and will not enter this story again. The other six, more recent brushes (more like broad strokes, really) weigh on him quite heavily. Two petty thefts for shoplifting, three larcenies for pickpocketing, and one grand theft auto, which is self-explanatory.

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The other school of thought about names is... well, you don’t do any of that. Just skim the phone listings or the authors of some books on your desk and there you go.

Odd as it may sound with all that I’ve just scribbled down, I’m not really for or against either method. I think having names with subtle layers and meanings behind them can add to a story. I also think it won’t subtract from a solid story if they’re not there. In my experience, there are times having extra meaning behind a name can add a beautiful level of nuance. There are also, however, times you just get tired of being beaten with the symbolism stick and want to get back to the story.

So, anyway, a few clever ways to find names...

Adjectives. Here’s an easy one. Just rattle off a dozen or so words that describe your character. Odds are you’ll hit one that’s close to a name. Think of Mary Shelley-- she gave her character who figures out how to beat death the name Victor. George Lucas named his self-interested space pilot Solo. This can also be the chance for some grim irony, as well. In The Incredibles, there’s something subtle and touching about the man who can lift freight trains being forced to spend the rest of his life as Mr. Parr (or par, as in average).

Baby books. I think we’ve all seen those little books at the checkout counter offering diet tips, how to train pets, or common crossword clues. If you look, there’s usually one with a few hundred baby names and what they mean. Browsing through one of these is an easy way to find the perfect name for your character. Priscilla means dutiful. Oscar means “spear of God.” Yoko means determined or ambitious (no, seriously).

Established names. I mentioned poor George Bailey above. I went to school with a girl named Natalie Wood. Alien Nation features the poor Newcomer cop named Samuel Francisco squaring off against alien crime boss Rudyard Kipling. God only knows how many poor kids have been named after presidents. Sometimes it’s perfectly acceptable for a character to have the same name as a famous figure, either because they have similarities or they’re polar opposites. As I said above though, if you’re going to use this one, you have to acknowledge you’re using it in some way.

Make it up. Cheating, you say? James Barrie made up the name of Wendy for the girl who accompanies his most famous creation. Edgar Rice Burroughs made up most of his character names, since so very few of them were either A) human, B) terrestrial, or C) both. In both cases, the important thing is that they sound right. Wendy reminds us of windy, and the “eee” sound is... well, a bit girly. It’s a young, fresh, happy name. Burroughs, on the other hand, used lots of hard consonants in his names. You never forget the peoples of Mars are all tough warrior races.

(Although—for the fantasy and sci-fi folks—I will toss out that if you make up a totally unpronouncable name, you’re going to be breaking the flow of your story. One of my favorite niche genre novels has a character named aM!xitsa, and it should tell you how good the story is that I could make it past that name a few hundred times...)

Again, despite all this stuff, I don’t think a lack of triple-layered names means you’re a bad writer, and it will not kill your manuscript. Catcher in the Rye would not have fallen apart if the main character was Fred Phelps. To Kill A Mockingbird would still be one of my favorite books if the narrator was nicknamed Chief instead of Scout. Odds are we all still would’ve cheered if the hero of Raiders of the Lost Ark was going by the name Irv Smith when he shot that swordsman in the marketplace.

In the end, the most important thing is just to give some thought before you name a character. Not deep thought. Not meaningful thought. But if you want to bring them to life, you’ve got to put something into that choice.

Next week, I’ve been thinking of a few things I wanted to say about having a few things to say.

Until then, get back to writing.


2 comments:

Matthew Baugh said...

Nice thoughts. The only comment I can think to add is, when naming people from an alien or fantasy culture, be consistent. Possibly it's just me, but I deally like it when names from a made up culture have the same sort of sound. Robert E. Howard did this with his hyborean stories, giving the characters of one culture vaguely Celtic sounding names, another vaguely Slavic names, and another vaguely Spanish names, etc.

If you have three characters coming from the same fantasy kingdom and their names are Yoriko, Llanfwyr, and Tom it sounds like you didn't put any effort into it IMO.

So, what do you think constitutes a bad character name?

Virtual Stranger said...

Very good point about consistency with made-up names, Matthew. I wish I'd thought to mention that. ;)

I think a bad name, simple as it may sound, is a name that either just doesn't fit-- or one that fits too well because it's been beaten home with a sledgehammer. No one's going to believe a man named Duke Killemall got elected president. At the same time, a priest named Peter Holyman Bishop just makes the audience's eyes roll. You don't see football linebackers named Cecil Worthington; brainy, AV-nerd girls called Muffy Jefferson; or battle-hardened black-ops soldiers with names like Joey, Billy, Cindy, and Mikey.

There is some leeway in there for ironic names, of course. Muffy up there immediately calls Buffy Summers to mind, and Billy was the bad-ass tracker in Predator. I think often, though, you get people seeing those exceptions and not understanding that they're ironic names. And that's when the Bobs, Veronicas, and Ezekiels just get thrown down left and right, regardless of the character they're attached to. :(

Sometime after publication, I'd love to do a follow up to this explaining why and how all the characters in Ex-Heroes ended up with the names they did.