Thursday, April 14, 2022

By Any Other Name

Along with creative titles for books and stories, I admire the appropriateness and cleverness of the names some authors come up with for their characters. I guess it probably started with Ponyboy and Sodapop in The Outsiders. Original and unforgettable. Sometimes names are pulled from history and inserted into a story to purposely push the characteristics of the original owner. Once in a great while,  there is just certain poetry to the names being used which has to be admired -- Katniss Everdeen. 

In my writing, I try to use names that fit the personality of the character they are assigned to. I'm also mindful of the cultural and national origins when assigning names. Maksim Fillyp Bondreovich, the main villain in the Evan Davis Tales series, is obviously Russian - the first name being a Russian derivative of the Latin Maximus, meaning greatest. The Arabic names I used in From Within the Firebird's Nest, were all based on the Arabic meaning of the name as a word. The first name of a secondary villain in the story, Qa’id Al-Abidin, means leader. A purposeful name. 

I strive to be faithful to the timeline of the character as well. I don't think anyone could imagine giving a newborn today the name Percy, however, it was popular at a certain time in history. Likewise, I avoid names that have preconceived conflict attached to them. Some names will carry baggage forever and distract from the story. 

I can't think of a time when I purposely used the name of someone I know in a story. I purposefully try to avoid it simply to avoid the real-world conflict that might arise. That doesn't mean that I haven't been tempted to name a villain in the story after a villain from my personal life or to use the name of a high school crush for a romantic interest in a book. Like all writers, I mine my experiences for bits and pieces of stories, but I shy away from including names and places where it all took place. 

As I started writing my first stories for public consumption, I came across an interview with Elmore Leonard who wrote the stories and books that eventually became the TV show Justified. He was talking about how he came up with the name Raylan for his main character. He confessed that he didn't imagineer it but stole it from the sewn-on name on a workman's shirt he saw while traveling. In fact, Leonard told the man he was going to use his name and make it famous. He did. I thought obtaining interesting names by thievery was a great idea. From that point on, I've kept a list of names that I come across and find interesting. As of today, there are fifty-eight names on that list.

Once in a great while, there is a confluence of forces that brings a name to me just when it is needed. That happened recently.  My current work in progress has a character who was nameless, not an unusual situation in an early draft. Then out of the blue, I got an email about another matter and the name of the sender was perfect for the character. Yoink! Lightning strikes.

Every now and then, just to shake things up, I do something like what happened in DD603 (POMSILv2)-- none of the characters are named.  It wasn't intentional. I was midway through the story when I realized I had not named anyone. It also occurred to me that adding names might take away from the story's meaning, so I didn't add any.  For that story, it worked. After all, if a rose by any other name still smells as sweet--  why do you need to call it by a name to enjoy its smell?


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