Posted in Chronicles in Creation

The Power of Names

So October is behind us and November looms into view. For those following Nanowrimo this month, I wish you the best of luck – make sure that you have fun with it! Hopefully this post and its brethren will be of some assistance, even in a small way.

Currently the plan is to publish more Chronicles in Creation this month, but if a spectacular spectral story comes to me, I’ll go for it!

Ch.5 The Power of Names -small

Names are important. They are our first foundations towards building our own identities and form an impression of us in the minds of those who meet us. ‘Oh, you don’t look like I imagined,’ is a common phrase because we associate both appearances, mannerisms and characteristics with certain names and not with others.

Think back to when JK Rowling introduced Seamus Finnegan? You didn’t need her to tell you that Seamus was Irish, did you? You can’t really get a more Irish name. So just by introducing him, JK Rowling told us two things; his name and his heritage.

Of course, like all aspects of life, writers can choose to play with these assumptions. In fact my favourite quotes about naming people from (who else?) Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman in Good Omens does this especially well:

[Mr Young] stared down at the golden curls of the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness.

“You know,” he concluded, after a while, “I think he actually looks like an Adam.”

This would probably also be the moment to give a shout-out to what I would like to put forward as the oldest running-joke in English Literature; Robin Hood’s right-hand man, a giant bear of a man by the name of John Little and lovingly referred to by everyone as Little John. This joke has been going now for around 800 years, and it still makes the children I tell stories to laugh.

Now I, personally, am incredibly bad at naming things by nature. No, I mean seriously bad. When I was a child I had two knitted toys, one a girl and one a boy. What were their names? No. They were called Girl and Boy. The stuffed duck was called Duck, and the rabbit? Yes, it was indeed called Rabbit.

This is why no one asks me for name suggestions when they are expecting children…

And delightfully meta as naming all my characters things like Hero, Side-kick, Evil Minion might be, that’s not really a long-term option for a writer, is it? So clearly once I had started writing I needed to be able to crack a system for naming my characters, and fast.

Because we live in an age where aspiring writers know a whole lot more than we used to about how the successful people chose their iconic character names, it is clear that there are a whole cornucopia of ways and as always you need to find what works for you. JK Rowling chose the names for Snape and the Dursleys by finding the actual places of those names on a map and finding them to sound exactly as unpleasant as she wanted the characters to be. James Bond was so-named by Ian Fleming to be a name that was so utterly bland and boring that it would be a great contrast to the amazing things the character then went on to do, so much so that the name James Bond is synonymous with cool but there we go…

What I found worked for me was, if I were to be really honest with you, essentially the same method that I used back when I was a child. No don’t panic! I didn’t really call the pixie ‘Pixie’ or anything awful like that!

Whenever I needed to name a character I would write down what I felt where their defining characteristics. If they were a very small character they could usually be defined by physical traits, and if the plot was going to spend more time with them then I would focus on personality. Were they tall? Did they have blond hair? Did they laugh a lot, or were they kind of miserable?

Then I would go looking for names with meaning which matched some or all of these traits. So, if one of my main characters who had a very active role in the plot had red hair, then I might call them Clancy, which is Irish for ‘red headed warrior’. If they were a really cheerful character, I might call them Abigail meaning ‘gives joy’. Sometimes the link was less literal; one minor character who was notably tall was called Edward after Edward I, buried in my neck-of-the-woods, and known in his day as ‘Edward Longshanks’ because by the standards of the time he was ridiculously tall.

I do at this point have to say that this idea has a long and proud heritage in how people have received names throughout history. For the longest time families either didn’t name their children at all until they’d lived long enough (say seven years old) for it to be likely they’d make it to adulthood. It was seen as a waste of a name to use it on someone who’d only wear it for one or two years and then die. Infant mortality shaped family relations in a way it’s hard to fathom today, because we currently live in an age where mothers have something of a right to expect that on giving birth to three children, she will have three adult children eighteen years later. Back in the not-so-distant past, mothers weren’t seen as having a right to expect that even one of those three children would make it, and would have to give birth to maybe seven children to enjoy that same security.

What I’m building up to is that we currently name children based on things like, family names and what characteristics we hope our children will grow up to be. But when you are naming your children at seven years old, you can name them for the person they are already showing signs of being. Are they brave? Quiet? Do they seem to be naturally cowardly? Are they good with words, and you know this because they always seem to talk their way out of trouble?

This then ties into an older naming technique; Deed-names. This gets used a lot these days in fantasy writing, and I can see why, but it’s based back in times when names had real power and weight behind them, and weren’t that thing you gave so you could get your Starbucks order. Just really quickly we’re going to look at how names having power manifests, because if you want your names to be important to the plot in some way, then these ones have stood the test of time and been focus-grouped:

Middle Names – So way-back-when, it was thought that if someone knew your whole name, or True Name, then they could command you through magic and you had to do whatever they said. This is why parents would give their children a middle name, yet you would only give out to others your first name and your family name; Cameron Graham for example. Therefore you can now function properly in society, because people have a name to call you by and sign you up for things with and whatnot, but they can never have the ultimate control over you from having your full name.

Names as After-life – This is another ancient belief that has a longer-lasting influence than you might think. We don’t know a lot about Germanic Paganism, because theirs was not a literate society and the only things that have survived were written by Christians (otherwise known as the people on the other side of the struggle.) As such there are some massive, massive gaps in our knowledge, but we do know that the pagan celtic peoples tended towards a belief that a man was never truly dead so long as his name was still spoken. The biggest fear was that you would just be totally and utterly forgotten in a generation after your death. This engenders BIG personalities that make it into myths and legends and that’s one of the reasons why everyone is such a larger-than-life presence, whether as villains or heroes. You go big or you go home. Say what you like about Grendel from Beowulf; he’s the villain but we remember him!

Deed-Names – We’re back to this now. These are related to the point above; how are you remembered? Deed-names are connected to actual actions the owner has performed. They can’t usually be handed down like family names,* they are individually earned and lost. They are also usually given to you by others, so it’s tied in to how other people see you; Bert the Smelly is not the name of a well-regarded person, but it is seen as highly suspicious to give yourself a deed-name; the equivalent of someone telling you out of nowhere that they are really a great guy. You don’t get to make up a deed-name any more than you get to make up a whole set of amazing victories for yourself.

(*Profession-based names like ‘Smith’ or ‘Potter’ do get handed down, yes, but they seem to do so initially because the family business gets passed down with them.)

If your character is called Magnus Dragon-Slayer, he has absolutely got to have killed a dragon. Stephan King-Slayer? Yes, it is indeed absolutely compulsory that he has killed a ruling king at some point, and all we have to work out is if this was seen as a good or bad thing. This idea is pretty strange in modern-day society, partly because we achieve our goals more often as a collaborative effort, and because reputations don’t have the kind of intrinsic worth that they once had, and this is why when deed-names come up in something not set in a legendary past of dragons and monsters, such as science-fiction, it’s played for laughs.

The Tenth Doctor in The Sontaran Strategem meets a character called Staal the Undefeated, and he mocks him for the name.

Ah, that’s not a very good nickname. What if you do get defeated? “Staal the Not-Quite-So-Undefeated Anymore But Nevermind.”

The reason, when I first saw this joke, I found it uncomfortable is that this isn’t how it works! If Staal the Undefeated gets defeated he is simply called Staal. He has lost his deed-name and thus his identity. To have a name like ‘the Undefeated’ is certainly a huge act of confidence, but it’s also easily lost and with it Staal would lose absolutely everything. ‘Staal the Potter’ would always be a potter; that can’t be taken away. But ‘Staal the Undefeated’ only really exists until the day when he is defeated, at which point he no longer really exists at all. If used traditionally, the name also implies that the only way he would lose his title of ‘the Undefeated’ when someone killed him. It’s a big deal!

If you’re not sure of this weight of that loss, think back to Jaime Lannister after he loses his hand. What was his response to losing, proportionally, one small body part? “I was that hand.” When he loses the hand, Jamie has to create a totally new identity for himself – it was his only option other than death. Names and identities are very closely intertwined, and identities matter a lot, especially for characters which the audience is expected to remember and relate to.

Now I was lucky enough to be saved from needing to name a whole swathe of my characters because my stories were based in British folklore, and therefore major characters already had names! Mwahahaha!

The queen of the fairies already had a name – actually the queen of the fairies has several names depending on the area you are collecting these stories from; Maeve, Titania, etc. Whenever that happened I picked the one I felt matched the tone I was going for – in this case Maeve – because the whole point of the stories was to present these icons of British Folklore as if they were real people, with real lives. I just can’t picture a real person called Titania. It sounds like the name given to a character to show that they are mysterious and exotic. Maeve is a real-person name; lots of women in Ireland and other Gaelic communities are called Maeve, and she just sounds more tangible. Maeve is the name of someone with her own personal concerns and worries who has to eat and get dressed and think about laundry.

In the event that you are reading this blog and thinking to yourself ‘This sounds like a great idea’, then first, thank you, that’s very kind, and secondly, here’s a couple of things to consider:

  1. I know that the internet is a great source of this kind of information with the ability to search for names really quickly, but I really do recommend that you go to a charity/thrift shop and invest in a few physical books. The older the better. You’ll get much more information on the origins of names than is generally kept on websites and this will save you from needing to cross-reference so much;
  2. Related to the last point; think about what area, geographically, your characters are from, and where the story takes place (especially if these are different). Try and match the general place of origin for the name to the origin of the character. For example; I could have named my red-headed character Alani which is Hawaiian for ‘orange tree’, and that’s a really pretty name, but my story takes place in the British Isles, and a Hawaiian name would might stand out as odd. Which brings us to the next point;
  3. Think about using your names to tell us about your character straight out of the gate. My red-headed character, for instance, would be fine with a Hawaiian name in a sea of Saxon names during the 18th century if I wanted that character to stand out as a well-travelled character from far-off lands; it automatically marks them as different, it isolates them clearly even without a physical description of colouring or dress-style. This brings us to one last factor;
  4. Time Period. In the modern era, with people and ideas moving around the globe all the time; names have travelled too. Parents no longer pass family names down to their children as a matter of course, and many try to find names which are distinct and original. If your story takes place in a metropolitan city in the twenty-first century, use whatever names you like. Sure if you have a character named something really unusual this might be remarked upon, but that’s no reason not to go for it. By contrast, I know your Roman soldier came from Greece originally, but maybe don’t call him Stephen, ok? It may stand out, is what I’m sayin’.

Writers are like parents – you need to think about your characters’ names. There’s lots to think about, and I’m not saying you need to give the same in-depth thought to all of your character names, by any means. But I do recommend that you put some thought into all of them.

Back in the day, people were given names by strangers because they were loath to tell just anyone their actual names, because it was said that you could be commanded through magic if a wizard knew your real name, your true name. Names have power. Writers are the wizards of today; you have great power over your characters. Use it well.

Interested in this post? Look up the rest of the Chronicles in Creation series here.

Author:

Writer. Crafter. Nerd.

15 thoughts on “The Power of Names

  1. This is so true! Names can either make the character come alive or make it as much three-dimensional as an origami–mere paper folding, nothing more. NaNoWriMo is here and this is certainly going to help writers 🙂

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  2. Hi! I’m happy that found your blog, particularly “Chronicles in Creation”. I found it very useful (and entertaining!) as I’m learning to write fiction. I use the same method for choosing my character names and I do regard them as my children. hehe. Anyway, I’d like to ask your opinion. If your readers hate the name you choose because it conflicts with their expectation for the character appearance, but you don’t find any problem at all (and the name fits how you picture the person), will that bother you? Isn’t it possible that we hold different name stereotype as well?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi! Thank you so much, that’s very kind of you!
      I’m glad the series is helping someone! I’ve still learning a lot too (I think for writers that never stops!) but it’s always good to be able to take something from other people’s experiences. And if it’s entertainign too then bonus!
      Right, your question.It’s hard to give an answer without knowing what the name(s) are that are causing the pproblem but here’s a general rule of thumb I work off when I’ve had readers think little of my naming choices:
      I always ask myself what the root problem is, and then go from there. For example, if I had a young female character and I called the Ethel, people might feel that’s a terrible choice because ‘Ethel’s an old lady name’. If so, remind yourself that old people were young people once and stand tall against the idea that people (especially women) become less interesting as they get older. Maybe I’d even age the character just to emphasise that point.
      If the problem is more that you have inadvertently given a white character a name traditional to say Chinese or Native American culture, then take yourself a step back and think. Did you pick the name because it sounded all cool and fantasy like? If so either change the name to something that’s less … appropriative, or change your character. I’ve never done this but I’ve read books that did and they face a lot of criticism because of it. Mind you, in all cases, they could have just changed the character’s appearance to fit the name. There’s plenty of white characters in fiction, stand out from the crowd and do something cool!
      If the issue is more that people think the name you picked is silly to them then we’re in really subjectvie territory! There’s technically no reason that a fearsome warlord called Bob can’t be intimidating, but be aware you’re going to have to work a bit harder than you might if you called him The Bonecrusher (that IS a silly name, sorry. I’m bad at pulling names from the air…)
      Sorry, that’s a really long answer! Does it help? If not, maybe gimme a few more details and we can talk?
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Woah, you hit my problem spot on. Haha. Cool!
        So, I’m writing contemporary romance with a psychological undertone. I want to portray a female character (not the heroine) that unapproachable, yet desirable. So I give her a western name with the western spelling (I’m from Southeast Asia btw). Noted that in my country western and latina names are prevalent. A friend, though, pointed out that as being pretentious. But I find it untrue because the rest of the characters are using generic names (which I desire, and in my opinion, still translate the inner-self of my characters). And now, thinking another name for that girl makes me feel pretentious. Because I seem to me like I want to win my friend favor. But you’re also right. I want that girl to sound cool and fantasy-like. But there’s also more than that. The name came to me like the character herself was asking for it. I imagined how my protagonist will say it and it just fit! I won’t change the name completely, maybe just the spelling? What do you think?

        I don’t want to fret about a name so much. But, I notice this can happen again in the future. I’m glad you take this seriously because it is serious for me. And it’s always nice to have a fellow writer give some opinions for my problem. Thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Maybe a different spelling might help, yeah?
        Names are a lot harder than they look! People interpret all kinds of things out of them, and as a writer there’s not really anything you can do to stop that, so don’t worry about it too much! Like all things in writing, if you’ve really thought about it, and definitely decided that you like the name for good reasons then stick with it. You can’t please everyone, no matter what you do!

        Liked by 1 person

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