Monday, September 20, 2010

Brian M: WHAT’S IN A FICTIONAL NAME?

Giving your characters names can be:
A cause for writer’s block
An opportunity to say something about them
A chance to make a box of verbal bonbons
An opening in the fabric to weave in a mystery
All of the above

A: A CAUSE FOR WRITER’S BLOCK

Naming characters is no different than naming a pet, or a car. It’s a matter of trial and error until you finally come up with the one that fits. There’s no point in fretting about it, just keep throwing the name spaghetti against the wall until one sticks. And be damned thankful you write in an era that, should you decide to change the name of your character at the last minute, you have the technology to hit “find” and “replace.” Imagine what Dostoyevsky or Dickens might have faced if they decided to change their protagonist’s names at the last minute?

B: An opportunity to say something about them

Just as you give physical, mental, and emotional qualities to your characters, naming them is giving the reader a clue as to who they are, a little package for them to unwrap as the story proceeds.

For example, in my vampire spoof, SUCK IT UP, my protagonist, the most non-threatening vampire to ever stalk the earth, is named Morning McCobb. Should the reader care to, they can already decipher something about his name as they read/say it: “morning macabre.” He’s a creature of the night and he’s named “Morning?” What gives? He’s a morning kinda person but he’s also macabre? This guy sounds like a bit of a walking contradiction.

Of course, you don’t have to be that upfront about naming. I named a boy in a novel that has much to do with plumbing and toilets (OUT OF PATIENCE) Jake Waters. Waters is the obvious connection but Jake is not. Turns out, “the jakes” used to be English slang for the toilet. No one has to know that, but Jake’s father is so obsessed with toilets that it makes sense that he might have named his son after obscure toilet slang. Luckily, Jake never finds this out in the story.

Of course you can be even more murky and devious by using foreign languages to name characters. I named a Jay Leno-like late night talk show host, Gabby Kissenkauf, because 1) “kissen” in German means “pillow” and I find Leno pillow-like, and 2) I like the association with late night talk show hosts being our electronic pillow talkers. (You can really get carried away with this stuff.)

C: A chance to make a box of verbal bonbons

As the writer, you will have to repeat the names hundreds if not thousands of times. You are not only subjecting yourself to this potential for Chinese water torture, you are subjecting your reader to endless visual, and potentially auditory encounters with the name. That said, like fine wine, a name should have good “mouth feel.”

Think of famous characters that have nice mouth feel. Anna Karenina, Butch Cassidy, Dumbledore. Even Mickey Mouse.

So, name your characters with the same care you would name a child. You’re going to have to live with them for a long time to come.

D: An opening in the fabric to weave in a mystery

This is my favorite aspect of naming characters because 1) I was cursed with the wordplay gene 2) I love history and research and 3) I want my readers to not only wonder what the etymology of the name might be, but maybe even become word detectives and go seeking for a deeper and/or hidden meanings. Oh, and 4) it’s just damn fun!

A couple of examples from SUCK IT UP include the characters Penny Dredful and Ikor DeThanatos.

Penny Dredful is a tough, take-no-prisoners, PR agent who handles the outing of the first vampire to the mortal world. “Penny dreadfuls” were also the cheap and gruesome crime-reporting tabloids sold in late-19th century England (when DRACULA was published). Give a kid a name, maybe he’ll learn a wee bit of trivia. And, in my estimation, the tantalizing term “penny dreadful” just shouldn’t the fate of being tossed on the archaic pile.

Ikor DeThanatos is an old-school vampire, a bad-ass, bloodsucking fiend. Thanatos is a Greek god of death, and “ichor” is the blood of the Olympian gods. Add the “de” and you have “blood of death.”

None of the above obscurities ever get explained in the story, of course; it’s there for the author’s amusement, and potentially a reader’s unraveling.

One last piece of advise when it comes to naming characters. Collect names, real or imagined. Ray Bradbury keeps a list of nouns that he feels might provoke a story someday. Intriguing names should definitely be tucked somewhere in a writer’s pigeon holes. The last name I added to my list was from a New York Times article about one of the first holdouts in the NFL: Pudge Heffelfinger. Not that’s a name! I don’t know if I’ll ever use it, but it’s there, in whole or part, waiting to be called into the game.

Oh and—that damned wordplay gene again—here’s my favorite name from a story in which the villain is a diabolical termite. Dividious Wood.

3 comments:

  1. If I ever craft a story about toilets the protagonist will now be named Jake.

    I posted about name generation on my blog last week and discovered that the word verification thingy has some doozies for fantasy/sci-fi. No kidding the word verify for this post is:

    Plosios

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