Monday, April 27, 2009

The Importance of a Good Name

Allen: What is your name?
Madison: It's hard to say in English.
Allen: Then just say it in your language.
Madison: All right. My name is...
[High-pitched squeals that shatter all the television screens]
Allen: [nervously to the store clerks] So, how about those Knicks?
- Splash, 1984

Names have power, so the old stories go. If you know someone's true name, the legends say, you can command them - or you can kill them. Realistically, those powers are reserved for authors alone, and it is a big responsibility. A compelling name can make the difference between a gripping story and a pointless lark. After all, the reader is going to be experiencing the events along with the protagonist, and if the protagonist can't be taken seriously because of a ridiculous name, there's one strike against success already.

There are methods to naming. Discussing this with an associate yesterday, it came up that in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkein carefully chose names to complement the thematic environment of Middle-earth. The Hobbits have brief, snappy, one- or two-syllable names, giving them a naturalistic, familiar air, while some characters who are set back from the action have longer, more flowerly names.

Myself, I can't start writing until at least I know the names of the major people involved in it. This was something I wrestled with for a while in "Restrictions Management," soon to enter its second-draft stage. Names, when chosen carefully, can be indicative of background and nature and can act as hints to the true face of the character. In this case I settled on the surname of Rowanwood for the characters - after Rowanwood Avenue in Rosedale - to connote a tincture of wealth. That informed the background of the characters, and let me understand the details underlying the story in a more meaningful way.

The same is true for my next work-in-progress, "Oddments." There are going to be three characters on the protagonist's side, the brave crew of the spaceship Eltanin, and one antagonist. I like going for Meaningful Names, when they're not painfully obvious, and as I said before they do help to guide the development of a character. Alonso Peralta - which, if you combine Latin and Spanish, can be read as "to high" - is the commander, and the EVA specialist and protagonist, Phoebe Nassau, has a surname that can be pronounced the same way as "NASA."

I'm not done yet, but I'm still working through it.

Nevertheless, you've got to be careful to not choose a ridiculous name unless the story is built around that intention. Fictional characters may not complain as much as children saddled with poor names might - but you won't have people taking them seriously.

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