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:
- 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
- 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?)
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?