Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Wednesday Wanderings

What's in a name?  If you're a writer pondering a character, a great deal.  While some writers may be able to freely change the names of their characters, even the protagonist, throughout drafts, for me, characters become intertwined with their names in a very kinesthetic sense.

And the rose does not smell as sweet by any other name.  "Petunia" conjures very different images - arguably even if one has never seen a petunia.  Give someone the name Ethel, and one has a certain first impression; Brittany creates another one.  It's about more than sound, of course:  culture, time period, and even personal choice affect the names we know a person by.

On the other hand, it's possible for a name to be too on the nose.  I tend to resist names that have precise, appropriate meaning, unless prophecy or divine intervention is involved.  A fire invoker named Ember ... what, her parents really knew that was what she going to grow up to be?  Call me crazy when I'm happily accepting the existence of dragons and bickering gods, but this kind of thing threatens my suspension of disbelief.

I'm reminded here of a story I once read about J.R.R. Tolkien (a master linguist, of course), who thought that words "cellar door" were some of the most lyrical in the English language, even though their meaning is dreadfully mundane.

I admit to a weakness for characters who dislike their given name, so use a nickname or other handle.  I did in Scylla and Charybdis - in fact, I just had to go back into the manuscript to remember that Flick's given name is Tobias, so take that as you will.  It's also coming up in the project I'm working on - the narrator is generally called by her last name, Maren, and the intent is to trickle out her nickname, and then her full first name.  It should be quite obvious to readers why she's not fond of it, and hopefully, it's a bit ironic.

All right, enough vaguebooking on a story I haven't even written yet ... the project also contains a character whose real name is Aristophanes - blame the artificial intelligence who decided to name the children in its care after ancient Greeks.  He goes by Archer, and for him, it's also a personal homage / in-joke to Robin Hood.

In both Scylla and Charybdis and my current project, I've had to ponder the direction names will take in the future.  I think it's quite likely that, as ethnic groups blend, so will naming ... to the point where a future society may have numerous examples of names that don't seem to "fit" - but in context, they're normal.

We already see this as exceptions to the rules.  A young couple might give their daughter a Native American name because it "sounds cool."  Someone might name their baby in honor of another individual ... who may be from another group and certainly comes from another time period.  (To pull from above, imagine a teenager named Ethel.  Quite possible, if her namesake is her grandmother.)  As people marry across boundaries, the blending of surnames produces some odd results - for instance, what if an Italian woman and a Japanese man marry and give their daughter a name from her family?  That's ignoring what happens when you start to hyphenate surnames ...

The challenge for me as a writer has been to represent this drift in naming without it seeming bizarre, gratuitous and "special" to readers.  I have to strike a balance between plausibility to modern ears (without going into great depth explaining / justifying background every time I introduce a character) and capturing that element of change.

And even if I haven't succeeded, I promise I will never name a sage "Elvis" (... that is what it means.  I swear.  Look it up) again.  Maybe.  Well, I haven't planned to.

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