What’s in a name?
As we are famously told to believe, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Well, maybe so, but still…if roses were called ‘warlrus armpits’, I doubt very much people would be quite so eager to stick their noses in deeply.
And what about sleeping beauty? No prince could ever really fall in love with a princess named ‘Briar Walrus-armpits’. (Princes, on the whole, are rather shallow)
I could go on, but I won’t because I’m making myself heave.
My point is, names are important, especially in fiction. A review I recently read on Goodreads led me to thinking about fictional names and how on earth they come about. The review was lamenting the tendency in some bad writing (especially in the fantasy and sci-fi field) to name characters with outlandish and unpronounceable names, usually with too many x’s and z’s.)
Which got me to thinking, how do they come about? The names we give to our imaginary friends? Character names falling from the heavens like manna? Whispered into the writers ear by their own invisible muse? Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Frodo Baggins. They’re all so iconic you really can’t imagine them now having ever been named anything else. Can you imagine Humphrey Aldershot and the Chamber of Secrets? ….nah.
(makes scribbled note of the name Humphrey Aldershot however, because I like it)
I’m interested, as a writer, where other writers get their character names from? Do they just spring into your heads unbidden and fully formed, creatures of their own right and fully grown like Athena bursting from the body of Zeus. (the original dysfunctional family) or is it a process of trying on different names like various hats, seeing which one finally fits, rolling the shape of the name around your tongue and trying it out like a literary humbug for flavour?
I can only speak for myself, but In my case, it’s very rare that I will ever name a character by throwing a dart into a phone-book. I’m not very random. I’m a fan of design and suggestion, and I like the power of names, and whether in my fantasy writing for children (and big children) or in my darker works for adults, I like my names to mean something. (if only to me)
Just the idea of a name in general is an odd one. As someone on twitter way back when pointed out, (i can’t remember who, or i’d credit them here, but it wasn’t me) asking for someone’s name is quite a strange process. You are basically saying ‘please tell me what noise I should make to get your attention’.
The Changeling series , due to its loose basis in both Greek and European mythology, is an absolute gold-mine for me when it comes to names. I specifically didn’t want to include ANY of the main pantheon of more well known gods and goddesses. You won’t find a ‘Zeus’ anywhere in the Series, or a ‘Hera’, or an ‘Artemis’, (and there is a good reason for that) But it was tremendous fun to choose the names I went with for various characters, dropping little easter-eggs where possible to hint through their names at what role they may plan in the overall scheme of things.
(I say may, because I’m also a big fan of red herrings and misdirection)
Phorbas for instance, the satyr tutor. I could have gone with Pan, or any of the more well known goat-man names, but I have my reasons for choosing the lesser known.
Woad, my blue skinned faun was named as an allusion to the cobalt war paint favoured by some Celtic tribes in days gone by.
Similarly with my Vampire book series. While not overt, I wanted at least a nod to the uber-daddy of all vampires, Dracula, which is why my heroines name is Harkness, (for Harker) the vampire groupies in New Oxford are referred to as ‘Helsings’) and Dr Harkness’ collegue and friend is Lucy West. (named for Lucy Westenra from Stokers novel)
Her abrasive supervisor, Veronica cloves, is of course a link to garlic, classic vampire repellent, fitting given her disdain for them.)
Choosing names is a fun game, and one of my favourite parts of the writing process.
What I find wonderful sometimes however, about the (frankly odd) pastime of making people up from thin air, is when you dont decide on a character name.
When instead, the character themselves just ‘tells’ you their name, and theres no arguing with it.
If you write, you’ll know what I mean. We only ever really have tenuous control over our characters at the best of times. Often I’m not 100% sure what precisely they’re going to say until they say it.
And some names just announce themselves. There’s no Rhyme or reason for me why Allesandro is called ‘Allesandro’ in the Hell’s Teeth novel. Or why Griff, the lab assistant is called ‘Griff’. They just are, and even if, as the writer whos supposed to be in charge of these things, you decide to change the name, nothing else sticks and you end up doing as you are told and going back to the original. Sometimes your subconscious knows best.
Personally I find it a relief when this happens, as it saves me the work of having to use reason or logic or all those other things which most writers dislike. I am inherently lazy.
And on the flip side of the coin, there are those characters which simply refuse to be named. These can be extremely frustrating to me.
For example, there is a character in the sequel to Changeling: Isle of Winds, who, in various drafts, has been through at least seven different names so far. Each time I think, yes, I like this one, this…fits!
Then I feel completely cold to it on the next read through. It sticks in my throat, or knocks me out of the story when my eyes scan over it on the page.
To me, this is usually a sign that I don’t know the character well enough yet, or that I myself am not altogether certain of their motives. As a yardstick, I always know I’ve drawn the character to my own satisfaction when the name finally fits them as perfectly (if impractically) as the proverbial glass slipper.
Perhaps it’s just me. Maybe only I obsess over names this way, but I doubt it.
Anyway, I’m off now for a nice cup of tea to and to dip into my copy of Humphrey Aldershot and the Goblet of Fire