(Crossposted from Silk And Shadows)
The Bard was sooo wrong. I know, I know, where to start with all the places Shakespeare went wrong. Like making teen suicide sexy. Like forcing high school students to read King Lear (right, like we can relate to the dynastic difficulties of another old white male). Like wearing pantaloons.
Okay, that last one wasn’t necessarily his fault. But I’m particularly thinking of his line:
That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.
Sorry, no. There is a world of difference between a hero named Xavier and a hero named Clyde. Ask that other nemesis of high school English classes, Mark Twain (since I’m in a quoting mood):
The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — It’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
When it comes to Xavier and Clyde, didn’t an image jump into your head, full formed and inescapable? Oh, there’re hidden depths to Clyde, no doubt, and Xavier probably isn’t always the confidently sexy beast he pretends to be either. But already you have a mental image and preconceptions about our heroes, based solely upon their names.
Names have power
We learn this lesson on the playground the first time we call someone a nasty name. Or the first time some skeezy guy at a bar says, “So, what’s your name?’ and we’re tempted to lie. Not that any of us have done either of those. Names have power, and words come with built-in associations. Assigning a word to someone or something transfers those associations. And that power.
Fairy tales play on this understanding. Remember Rumpelstiltskin? The poor heroine was in a lather trying to discover his name. To know a thing’s true name was to have power over it. Or to invoke it. Which is why we come up with euphemisms to avoid saying words that have too much weight and power.
Certain names evoke responses for a variety of reasons:
Personal: One bad childhood run-in with a Marykay Sue (who probably called you names on the playground I mentioned above) and you might shudder every time you hear that dreaded trimvirate. Which would be rare, hopefully.
Cultural: Based on histories we hold in common, we come to associate certain names with certain characteristics. Bond, James Bond conjures up one package — images, movements, even vocal inflections — while Adolf has probably been ruined forever.
Peculiar: Because of the way our brains are wired and how we learn language, some names take on nuances we may not even been entirely conscious of. Names that end in an –ee sound tend to be diminutives or nicknames that downplay authority and emphasize familiarity. Not surprisingly, many female names end in the –ee sound. Even more obscurely, the K sound tends to tickle people’s funny bone even without context. One of the reasons poor Clyde can’t catch a break as a hero.
When the time came for my confirmation and my mom told me I got to pick my name in the church, I thought, what an opportunity! I’d name myself after a character in a story I was sort of writing. She was pretty, had really long hair, and could talk to animals. Her name was Raven Witchhazel.
Needless to say, that choice broke personal, cultural and peculiar rules for confirmation names. And anyway, it turns out, you have to pick a saint’s name. Sigh.
“And I will call him George”
There are lots of rules — spoken and unspoken — for names. Which is why I fret over character names. I just sent Book 2 to my editor last week, but this week I’m thinking about Book 3. While I have the story partially outlined already, I don’t have names for the characters yet. They have to be “just right” to start. Which isn’t to say they won’t change. (Yay for global search and replace!) But they should at least start, like the tolling of a bell, with depth, clarity and resonance.
No pressure or anything.
I look for characters’ names that are:
- Unique but not weird
- Unlikely to evoke a negative reaction in anyone reading it
- Easy for the eye to absorb (no full Russian names with patronymics five generations deep!)
- Revelatory about some aspect of character without being coincidentally unlikely
- Not too similar to a name I’ve used before
Simple, right? Of course not! Ask any soon-to-be parents who’ve locked up potential baby names in a time-access vault that responds only to voice and retinal scans in an attempt to circumvent well-meaning friends and relatives who all have the best suggestions and rejections to share. They too know it has to be “just right.”
And don’t get me started on book titles.
Which character name jumps to your mind and what’s the dominant characteristic that comes along for the ride? Would you name your child that? Would you want to be named that?
I don’t know. Lloyd from Say Anything? Yeah, it’s a film and has the visual advantage but shouldn’t the character’s persona and actions be what is sexy or heroic?
And I loved teaching Shakespeare. To 12 and 13 year olds who ate it up. And I started with what Shakespeare was really trying to do in R&J which was to caution against action without thought and the ridiculousness of love at first sight (he mocked himself when he created Hero and Claudio in Much Ado).
Lear is tough stuff, even for seniors though. I prefer The Tempest or Henry V.