Changing names: character name hell, H.P. Lovecraft and the freight of fate

Character names. Names are a complete pain. It took supermum and I nine months to agree on a name for Child One and ten months to agree on Child Two. My novel has dozens of characters who deserve names of their own and it’s killing me.

With your babies, you feel you’re setting a kind of destiny when you give them a name, a destiny they’ll either embrace or kick against for the rest of their lives (think of the Boy Named Sue…). Believe me, I know – my name was changed for me when I was adopted and I changed it myself thirty odd years later. Our children have to carry those names into the playground (“So when dudelet arrives in secondary, which name do you think he’ll want to own up to?” a sage friend pointed out to us in response to one of our more off-the wall alternatives), on passports, job applications, marriage registers, history books (well, maybe)…

With characters in your novel, it’s much, much worse. With characters in a novel set in an invented world, it’s nothing short of a nightmare. Changing the name of a character can alter their whole position in a novel, the way they relate to other characters and even the way you relate to them. Names, as the Norsemen knew so well, carry a heavy freight of fate. Here’s a random list of some of the implications your characters’ names carry:

  • gender
  • social class
  • historical timeframe
  • character and job (Swineheard Swineherdsson or Swineherdsdottir might be telegraphing things a little. But what a ‘boy named Sue’ bit of character motivation for a hero or heroine!)
  • family background
  • religion
  • implied relationships with other characters (in The Hobbit, we didn’t really need to be told that Fili and Kili or Oin and Gloin were brothers, did we?)
All of this applies if you’re writing a gritty piece of social realism about investment bankers or social workers. When you’re dealing with an invented world, you have to somehow engage with the above factors and more whilst using made up names. I mean, it’s a made-up world with no connection to our current one (unless you’re cheating and writing about parallel worlds and alternate histories).

And therein lies the core problem. Ninety nine percent of made-up names sound a bit silly. Consider the pure genius in H.P. Lovecraft’s coining of Nyarlathotep, the “Crawling Chaos”. Read it slowly with the lights out and shudder. But even Lovecraft could get it wrong – there’s something inherently funny about “Shoggoth” that lends itself to an off-broadway musical.

With my own novel, I’ve resorted to place names which I’m tweaking – a missing syllable here, an added letter here – that resonate musically with the kind of direction the characters are heading in. I’ve reached draft three without settling definitively on the names for most characters which means many of them are labouring under the most banal of place-holders (“Daisy”, “Jenkins” and so on). Thankfully, there are some well-proven techniques I can draw on.

For example, I could use universally consonant concrete or abstract nouns (as Diana Wynne Jones did with “Wizard Howl” or George RR Martin with the Stark family in Game of Thrones) But the final names will need to somehow resemble the placeholders at some level in terms of the effect they evoke in the reader. Jones’ Chrestomanci is as exaggerated, exuberant and magical as the character himself. Wizard Howl might have been a nickname imposed on him by the exasperated other characters. And Martin’s Stark family are, well, pretty damn stark.

Another tactic is to raid the lexicography of other languages or mythologies and tweak them just enough to maintain a kind of face validity with the reader so that one can bring along something of the resonance of their origins (see House Arryn and it’s hints of Welsh in Game of Thrones, or the Tuareg echoes of the names of the Fremen in Frank Herbert’s Dune) without overlaying too much of the original meanings. I’m doing this with some African names, for example.

Naming my main characters is the most fraught process, of course. I’m finally facing up to giving my heroine a name worthy of her origins and destiny and each name I try out seems to impose its own voice and dynamic on her actions. Names are a dangerous, magical business – handle with care.

P.S. Some other posts on naming characters that made me think:

http://jodyhedlund.blogspot.com/2011/04/eight-things-to-keep-in-mind-when.html – God, how I wish I was this organised about planning my characters!

http://ingridsnotes.wordpress.com/2011/04/25/bruce-covilles-eight-tips-for-fantasy-writers/ One of the tips Ingrid highlights is Bruce Colville’s insistence on the impact of the music of names. I couldn’t agree more with that (see above, Shoggoth, for example)

http://ingridsnotes.wordpress.com/2011/04/25/bruce-covilles-eight-tips-for-fantasy-writers/ – The Blood Red Pencil gives an editor’s perspective – I particularly liked the thought of paying attention to what names mean.

And finally, a heap of common sense from the Editor’s Blog – http://theeditorsblog.net/2011/04/29/dont-call-me-ishmael-name-that-character/

So what about anyone else – any naming dos and don’ts? What’s the worst, most inappropriate character name you’ve ever encountered?

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About Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

Writing, reading, listening, parenting... On Twitter as @dadwhowrites. View all posts by Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

13 responses to “Changing names: character name hell, H.P. Lovecraft and the freight of fate

  • Metajugglamum

    What a facinating essay. I don’t write long creative pieces … I’m not a finisher and always fear that, if i started, I’d end up throwing away months if not years of my life on a book that I would not complete, soooo, being a name hater too on principle (having loathed my own for most of my life) I get around the problem by simply using “she”, “he”, the boy, the child .. etc. Phew. Long sentence.
    Having read your piece, I’m now writing a bold note to myself, confirming that my own tack is the right one. What a nightmare!! I wish you luck. It blows my mind just thinking about it for a few minutes, let alone being thoroughly committed to getting it right. For several characters. For the entirety of a novel. Wow.
    MJM.

  • Nikkii

    I thought Howl was a case if mis-spelling? Wasn’t his name Howell in Wales? Oh gawd did I just make that up? It wouldn’t be the first time.

    I hated all the names in Lord of the Rings and kinda loved all the names Asimov used. I was absolutely certain for many years that I would call a daughter Arkady. Then I read Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles and was absolutely certain for a few more years that I would call a daughter Cloud and a son Hagen (I still think the Tanu and Firvulag names are pretty cool… just not for human children!)

    It’s just as well I grew up a bit before I had babies innit?

  • Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

    Well…That’s what middle names are for (little elf is saddled with a name that doubles for a favourite Giant Sand song and a famous country singer we thought was a pretty cool role model. For a country singer. No, not Tammy…

  • AnneCamille

    I’ve been working on a story and as not long into the process I suddenly thought: what IS this character’s name? It can’t be ‘X’ (what I had thought it was). Suddenly I figured out her name, and the name of her brother & uncle and it all fell into place. It was like once the characters revealed their names to me I understood them so much better.

  • phoenixaeon

    I love the process of thinking of names for characters, but that started when I used to play D&D and other games of the like. There are times I use the stock standard names – Jacks and Charlies – but then find something in the surname. There are other times that a name just falls onto a page – like the case of Cornfed the bodyguard. I don’t know why, but it felt right. Made me think that maybe he had a bunch of chickens in his back yard or something! Even characters have to have hobbies. But then there are other times when I can pour over a baby-name book just to get the right meaning for a certain character. Or even taking inspiration from the Latin names of trees for characters who were part of the forest. The things I have the most trouble naming are creatures/monsters and invented plant-life. They’re even more awkward than humans and humanoids.

  • J

    I’m sure you know this already, but Scarlett O’Hara’s name was Pansy up until the final final draft. So there’s time.

    My name has changed a few times…and I survived. Your characters will also. Then again, I never had to CHOOSE the new name. I agree, that seems like the hard part.

  • Adventures in Children's Publishing

    Great post! This one is going in the Friday round-up for sure. You’ve hit all the great examples too. The Game of Thrones is a great illustration of how different sounds can set up the national identity as well as the personal identity of a character. Of course, Tolkein was wonderful with that too — and look at the Harry Potter books. Rowling may put down her “useless” education in classics, but she puts it to such good use.

    I loved your comment on the blog today too. I posted an answer but wasn’t sure if you would see it. Knowing how to connect the dots of theme is such an art, isn’t it? Have you read Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT? It has a little bit of a theory about where to start setting theme up and some of the beats where it needs to be reinforced. I keep trying to pick apart his theory, but fail almost every time 😀

    Martina

    • Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

      Thank you! I’ll have to add Blake Snyder to my list. My current ‘writing about writing’ read is Ursula K. LeGuin’s ‘Steering The Craft’ which is a very inspiring little book. Though it’s taking ages to get through it as I feel honour-bound to work through each and every one of the exercises involved…

  • joem18b

    My mistake was in choosing to write a book in the “Pilgrim’s Progress” mode. My character Forthright just acted in an unforthrightly way. Now I’ve got to change his name to “Slightly Weasely but More or Less OK.”

    And “Lady Pure” has had a dream about getting it on with one of her handmaids, Little Minx. Is Lady Pure still pure? Ghandi freaked out when he had a nocturnal emission during a period of purity. Does Lady Pure’s dream soil her? Does she become Lady Likesa Da Ladies, or is that an overreaction to the plot?

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