What's In a Name?

Let's be frank. Names are ridiculously important, and they are a big issue for me and Alz. If you ever have the (mis)fortune to peek in on one of our brainstorming sessions--whether it be for our joint work or individual work--you'll see how much we trip and stumble. Indeed, the list of "Project ____" names that Alz posted a few posts back should be indicative of this.

For this collaboration, we just went for the hit or miss style of naming people. We tended to do very quick character sketches before attempting to find a name for said characters. Interestingly enough, the method we've been using the most is "So what letters don't you use a lot?" and then we instant message names starting with whatever less-used letter we've settled upon. (Let me tell you, names beginning with U and Q prove to be difficult.) Surprisingly, this method has worked well for this unnamed novel.

We take other factors into consideration as well, such as the sound and spelling of the name in relation to how we think a character is or what a place ought to be like. We also like looking up name meanings or using root words and translating them into another language. I'm especially into names with meanings because I think it adds another layer to characters. It's like randomly clicking around on a DVD menu and finding a hidden Easter Egg.

The most important thing is, of course, "fit." The name and the character have to click. This part is more on the subjective side of things and is too hard to explain since it's more of a feeling than anything else, but I still find it of utmost importance. A name can be hilarious or beautiful or incredibly clever, but if it doesn't somehow capture the character--if it's not "right"--it's all for naught. Names are, after all, an integral part of identity. It's a word (or maybe a handful of words depending) that identifies a person to him/herself and to the rest of his/her society, making it powerful.

We see this for ourselves in our literature and culture. In folklore and fantasy, there's the idea of the true name, in which the knowledge of names is power and in which names are thought to reflect some true aspect of the thing being named. In a similar vein, an article published in Psychology Today a long while back interviewed people who had changed their names, and these people said they'd done it because they were unhappy with their given names, that those old names did not reflect who they really were. Naming practices reflect the belief that names can help shape a person's character/personality and/or guide their destinies. Just look at all the baby name books out there! Chinese names are written and spoken with the surname first, expressing a cultural emphasis on the importance of the family and one's place in a family group. And finally, my specific literature example is from the play The Crucible by Arthur Miller. At the end of the play, John Proctor cannot bring himself to sign a false confession and says
"Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!"
showing what a name represents and its importance to his personal and moral integrity.

I thought this would be an interesting topic on its own, but also because in our current story, Alz and I have found ourselves with more than one character who dislikes their name or at least goes by something other than their given name (i.e. a nickname). This is abnormal, at least for me because I don't often have characters who go by nicknames. Although, I do touch on the "true name" idea passingly sometimes.

So what are some of your favorite names for anyone, real or fictional? How do other people go about naming the Proper Nouns populating their stories? And to reiterate, what's in a name?

P.S. A fun fact related to all this is how Val was named. (I know, I already mentioned him. I can't help picking on the poor dear.) We used our original method of just throwing out names and even looked a few up, but nothing seemed to stick. Then finally, Alz said, "Happy Valentine's Day!"--(and it literally was)--"VALENTINE. HIS NAME SHOULD BE VALENTINE." To which the conversation continued as follows:

K: I guess...we could call him Val and then he can be really embarrassed about it later.
A: I don't know. I just thought, you know, it might be a sign.

We didn't actually name him Valentine, but it's something else, and it's still shortened to Val.

1 comment:

david-de-beer said...

good post. Theoretically, I agree that names have power and resonance and should at least not be ill-considered.

Of course, in practise I'm all for calling characters Bob and Susan. And a wizard named Ted.