Writing Wednesday: On Names

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
T.S. Eliot, The Naming Of Cats

Okay, so maybe that quote isn’t totally apropos here, but as I was pondering this week’s Writing Wednesdays piece, I couldn’t help thinking of it. Because, of course, the naming of characters – and cities, and institutions, and Heaven knows what else – can also be a difficult matter. You need to remember, first and foremost, that fiction is not reality. That much is probably obvious, but in truth, fiction bears very little resemblance to reality. One of the first things you learn in Creative Writing 101 is that the statement ‘But that’s how it happened in real life!’ does not ever excuse any problem with your story. That rule mainly applies to plot development and characterization, but it runs a little deeper. In real life, you might know a dozen guys named John, or half a dozen women named Sarah – in college, I knew so many Sarahs that we had to start color-coding them. In a story, well…you better find reasons for them to use nicknames, stat, or your readers are going to get VERY confused VERY quickly. Even similar names can cause issues, as I’m sure George R.R. Martin has learned to his chagrin over the course of writing A Song of Ice and Fire.

And while you’re making sure all your characters have very unique, distinct names, you also need to bear in mind that certain names convey certain images. There was a time, for example, when Ashley, Meredith, and Leslie were all predominantly male names, and you still see them applied to men in the modern era – but unless you’re writing a period piece, you’d best have a very good reason for naming male characters any of the above, and you’d best be prepared to address the matter in the story. Twyla and Tilda are considered strange, at least to modern American readers (despite prominent women graced with both names); Patricia and Donna are old-fashioned; Tiffany and Amber put one in mind of Valley girls. And so it goes.

Names carry their own meanings, as any baby name book or website can tell you. I prefer to refer to the (sadly out of print) Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook when naming characters; my process has been complicated by the fact that many of my characters actually have two or three distinct names, and one set needs to logically derive from the other. My protagonist, Bree, isn’t just Brianna Naughton; she’s also Brianna ni Deirdre o Neachtain. Her sister, Kira, is Ciara in the old form; her mentor, Professor Trevor Gahan, is Lord Treabhair mac Daimhin o Gaoithin. So I’ve had to do a lot of digging, trying to find old Irish names that have mutated over time into more modern forms, and I’m not sure I’ve always succeeded. And I’ve tried to balance that attempt at some kind of authenticity against my efforts to convey meaning through the names – Brianna, for example, as the female form of Brian, means noble, strong, virtuous; in short, the qualities of a champion, which is exactly what Bree must become. I chose the name Trevor for Bree’s mentor because he’s an academic, and the name puts me in mind of an intellectual…but the Irish name from which it can be derived (the name is also derived from the Welsh, and has a different meaning in that case) means industrious or prudent, and Professor Gahan, as we learn over the course of the book, tends to be a very cautious sort, holding his cards close to the chest and acting only when strictly necessary.

Last but not least, names can be allusions, and not always the ones you intend. Here’s an example of a successful allusion from Fall: Bree’s mother is named Deirdre, after Deirdre of the Sorrows, a tragic figure from a rather prominent Irish legend. I don’t know if everyone who’s read the story so far has picked up on that, but it’s there for those readers who are likely to appreciate it, and it hasn’t bothered anyone who didn’t get the reference so far.

Now for a less successful allusion: I had originally named the town in which Fall takes place Tara, after the hill in Ireland associated with the High Kings and prominent figures of Irish mythology. And this is where beta readers came in again, because almost no one got it – in fact, they thought it was a reference to Gone With The Wind, and could not understand why I was linking my story to that one! Much as I hated drowning that particular darling, it was clear that the name just wasn’t working. I tried again with Cape Clear (playing with another bit of Irish geography), but when my writing group raised objections to that as well, I had to give up the ghost and go through the history of Massachusetts instead. Ultimately I came up with Crowshead, which sounds like a New England town and sort of slyly references some minor aspects of my tale. So Crowshead it is, as of my current drafts, and Crowshead it’s likely to remain.

All in all, you can’t afford to leave anything to chance. You can’t just pick names at random out of a baby book, or go straight for the easiest, most common choices. You need to carefully consider which names work for each character, each place, each and every thing in your story that needs a name of its own. And you need to run those names past other people, because you will mess something up. The right names can make your world more complete, more vibrant, more vital. The wrong ones can pull your reader out of the story. Choose wisely.

If you like what you’ve been reading, please consider donating to the blog’s Summer Pledge Drive – I’m dealing with some medical bills, a dying laptop, and a bunch of personal and family expenses right now and I could really use the help. If you would like to help, but can’t donate, please spread the word about the blog and about the pledge drive. The more readers I pick up, the more people who hear about all of this, the more likely I am to raise the funds I need. Thank you.


2 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday: On Names

  1. Oo, Crowshead! I like that one! I hadn’t heard it yet, but yes, thumbs up–definitely sounds New Englandy and interesting enough for the kind of story you’re writing.

    “Wellingham” is also a fake town name, for my part–I came up with that by combining the names of some real towns around where I grew up. So there’s “ham” from Needham (and a number of others), “Well” from Wellesley (next door to Needham), and the “ing” just felt like it fit right in, a la Framingham, for example.

    • I could’ve sworn I actually talked it over with you! Maybe I was thinking of someone else.

      As for Wellingham, well, yeah, I was figuring – I’m generally *pretty* good at figuring out which towns are actually real Massachusetts locales and which aren’t. (I think that’s why I find it so surprising when people see my Grey Angels bag and ask me where Shadowgard is – it doesn’t occur to me that anyone could think that’s the name of an actual place.) It does also sound like an authentic Massachusetts town, though, so, you know, thumbs up on that as well.

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