Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Names





Tyler Willis, a blogger since April 2012, whose profile image looks remarkably like a profile placeholder writes…

Dear Michael,

Some author's have commented about agonizing for days or weeks over their book titles, others about the names of individual characters in the plot in terms of wanting them to sound authentic. Your views on these may be enlightening for a future comment, do you subscribe to any a set formula.

First off, thanks for asking Tyler. It’s not always easy to come up with topics, and questions help.

Second…I don’t agonize.

Someone once pointed out that Rowlings did a lot of nifty things with her character names. Hogwarts teachers often reflected what they taught. Malfoy, using the prefix “mal” to indicate evil as in malevolent. Clearly some authors like to put jokes or clues into character names.

If you read my books to completion you will see that I did this too, but only in the case of the Big Bad revealed at the end. The rest of the characters were named in a far less grandiose process. What process you ask?

I collect names.

Much like a butterfly hunter, or perhaps more accurately, a bird watcher—whenever I spot a name I like, I pin it into a list I keep. Street signs are a great source of fun names. There are three streets near me called, Niblick, Mashie, and Follin. I just couldn’t resist thinking how these just sound like goblin names. Turns out they are golf terms—old names for clubs, I believe.

I also own a very old encyclopedia of proper names, which long ago I went through A-Z looking for any names I didn’t recognize that I thought were cool. This is how I came across Dahlgren, and Persepolis, which I changed to Percepliquis, because I thought it sounded better. I did this decades ago and forgot about it. Now when I see a name of something from my series in the real world I think—wow, someone named a city after my novels! At this point I’ve lost track what words I made up, which I modified and which I stole, but I keep a list—three lists actually, and they are: Male Names, Female Names, Names of Places and Things. This is where I dump all my gathered words. Then as I am writing and a character is spontaneously made, as sometimes happens, I just run down the list until I find a name that suits the character.

How do I do that?

Ah, now this is a trickier question, and likely more to the point of the inquiry. How do you name your dog, your cat, your parakeet? Most people look at the pet. A black lab almost always is called Blackie or Shadow. One with a white tip on its tail might be Tippy. It should be noted that almost all pet names must end in “y” or “ie” or have a derivative form that does. I don’t know why, it’s just a law of pet ownership. The point is you can look at an animal and come up with a name based on how they appear or act. A dog saved from a shelter is often called Lucky.

Characters can be handled the same way. You know what they are like and pick an appropriate title, but what about children? How do parents pick names for an expected delivery. Most choose prior to the birth and if they used the same method there would be a whole lot of Kickies, and Oppsies, walking around. In this process the name comes first, the character later. Some just pick a name they think is pretty, some because they want their child to be unique, or if traditional— after someone they know or knew—and others (the kind ones) pick based off the I-don’t-want-them-to-be-beaten-up-in-school rule. Some I think pick names in the hope the child will grow into it thinking that it might help shape them. These are the ones who insist their son is called Charles, not Charlie (or god forbid Chuck!) or more obviously, Richard rather than Dick. (How Dick is derived from Richard is still a mystery, maybe the original Richard was a real tool.)

The same is often true when creating a fictional character. Sometimes you name them and from that name comes their character. Someone named Royce isn’t a barbarian, and Hadrian isn’t a librarian. Now Myron—okay, raise your hand if you know why I named him that? Yes—of course. I was looking for a mousy sounding name, a name that the moment you read it, an idea might begin to form. Myron sounds small, and meek. Myron could be mean, bitter and vindictive as well, but generally I don’t ever get the impression of a Myron being pompous. Royce sounds elegant, cool, slick, classy, impressive, mostly because of the car. Hadrian was a Roman Caesar who lent his name to a famous wall built to defend England from Scotland. When you think of Hadrian Blackwater’s character you can see the similarities.

Oh yeah, that reminds me. Blackwater has nothing to do with the real life mercenary organization. I created the name long before the Iraq War. But it is interesting how real life can sometimes imitate art.

I picked the names of the Essendons with a concept in mind. Arista, Amrath, Ann, Alric…can you guess the pattern? The same pattern exists with the Woods—Theron, Thrace, Thad. I was creating family units using the first letters. This, as it turned out wasn’t such a great idea as readers sometimes had trouble telling one from the other. 

Most frequently however I will be typing along and come to a point where I need to name someone. If that person isn’t significant to the story, I look up at the blank wall, think a second, then look at the keyboard. Which letter should it start with? Ever notice how letters have personalities? S is powerful, cool and often sinister: sorcerer, Sauron, Snape. B is not so bright, simple but friendly: Biff, Billy, Baggins. G I often associate with harsh guttural ideas like goblins (Gandalf being an exception.) So often a name begins as simply as me looking down at the keyboard and matching a letter to the character, then I might just type something and read it to myself and see how it sounds. Then I will modify it to make it easier to pronounce. Iirabith looks sorta cool, but also feels like a mouthful so I might trim it down to Iribith. Better, but still an eye-stopper if you’re reading along. That’s one I’ll have to sound out or skip. So, then I might change it into something more recognizable like Ibith and from that to Ibis. Anyone ought to be able to pronounce Ibis. And since the first name is odd, I’ll make the last name easy and just use a real word—Thinly. Why Thinly? It just popped into my head and I like the way Ibis Thinly sounds.

As you might be able to tell, I don’t waste much time on names.

When I was first writing the series back around 2002—when I had never published anything before, and assumed quite logically, I never would—I remember coming to a name problem, like what should I call the big city in Avryn? I would pause and consider that I should put some time into this. Then I would think, why? No one is ever going to read it so who the heck cares? Why spend hours picking just the right name when it doesn’t matter in the slightest. This was a very strong case for not belaboring the point, but then, a very tiny—Myronish—voice would squeak, “But what if it sells? What if this becomes famous? What if this series becomes huge and a generation later the original six volumes are considered the canon that conventioneer fanatics quote to one another like The Princess Bride or Star Trek?” This got me nervous and thinking what if every word I write, every name is studied by literary professors someday who extrapolate deep meanings based on the choices I make now?

Colnora is very telling of Mr. Sullivan’s subtle underscoring of his universe. Col being a root term used in ancient Greek being a reference to Sol or the sun. This shows that the city is the center of the commercial or trading universe in the world of Elan. While Nora was the first name of an extremely prolific and successful writer of fiction at the same time Sullivan wrote his books. So clearly Sullivan is telling us that the city of Colnora is really a metaphor for Jesus.  

This is my nightmare.

I don’t put a lot of thought into the names. I picked them because they look and sound like the name such a person should have. Mauvin and Fanen were plucked out of thin air when I wrote the scene at Drondil Fields in The Crown Conspiracy. At the time I had no idea those two would appear in any future books. I most certainly would have picked better names if I knew. I mean Mauvin? The guy is the closest thing I have to Tom Cruise in the series and I called him Mauvin?

Royce and Hadrian were, of course, carefully picked. They took shape long before I sat down to write the series—a full decade before to be exact. Those were two names I kept highlighted at the top of my list along with Arcadius, Esrahaddon, Avryn, Wyatt, Elden, Arista, Miranda, and others, some I haven’t used yet.

So to answer your question. I don’t agonize, and my names are not “authentic” (if you mean this in some sort of Earth historical, regional, or cultural manner, as any relation to Earth’s past is completely coincidental.) Rather I try and make them appropriate as a means of helping to define the character. There are some very minor exceptions. Most names of Calian origin like DeWitt and DeLancy have a “De” in front of them. I took this idea from McDonald and McMurphy, O’Brien and O’Sullivan as a way to designate an ethnicity. And of course there is a specific reason that Avryn, Galewyr, Gilarabrywn, and other such names are the way they are as well. If you finished the series you already know. 

I did have one early beta reader complain that using the names Deminthal and DeWitt for the same person was inappropriate because one was of Scottish origin and the other of Baltic, or some such thing, and how could that possibly be—clearly I was ignorant or just lazy. Actually I was both. Yet since neither Scotland nor the Baltic, or Europe for that matter, are in my world, and because I really didn’t think too many readers knew the etymology of these words and their suspect conflict, I felt it was okay to ignore this.

As for title names, well that is a lot more complicated. Chapter titles I pick mostly after I write them, unless I have a clear idea going in. Book titles are important and those I will work on longer as a book title isn’t just a reflection of the contents, it’s a marketing tool.

The original title of The Crown Conspiracy was Heirs to the Throne. Everyone thought Heirs was awful—me included, but I thought it was accurate and didn’t give anything away. It was bad because it wasn’t sexy and there are so many Heirs and Throne based titles out already. The Crown Conspiracy was more intriguing, more exciting and oddly enough was, and still may be, unique as a title. Nyphron Rising was originally entitled Legends and Lore, which I loved. My wife didn’t. She complained that Legends and Lore Googled terribly. I needed something less popular. Rising is also popular, but throwing Nyphron in front made it unique, and it still described the contents. 

When Orbit came to me with the idea of turning the six books into three, I became concerned as to what the three books might be called. I didn’t want two titles on each, and I didn’t want them naming the books. So prior to agreeing to the deal I came up with three titles and got them to agree. To do that I put on my authors and marketing hats. I wanted titles that described the books and worked well together to brand the series.

The first two books of the series had one common feature, both deal with the stealing of swords. I feel titles need to be very short so I came up with Theft of Swords. I then realized that to meet my series brand requirement, all the books must have the same pattern of Blank of Blank. For book two I saw the primary feature of those stories concerned the establishing of the new empire and so Rise of Empire fit very well. The last I struggled with. Wintertide and Percepliquis are so very different. Then it hit me and I felt stupid. The title was littered throughout the books, repeated constantly—Heir of Novron. Three short names, equal in pattern, but reflecting the theme of both books contained within.

And there you have it Tyler. I hope this was helpful—a name by any other rose is a horse of another color.

9 comments:

  1. As expected and as usual very interesting and enlightening, thank you. I somehow had a notion, that with your writing qualities it was not just a whimsical picking from a hat. I have as yet not had too much trouble with character names or titles, maybe just luck, but they just seem to invent themselves and fit well enough.

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  2. This profile image better or worse? Ok Don't answer that.

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  3. "The guy is the closest thing I have to Tom Cruise in the series and I called him Mauvin?"

    That line alone has made a very trying couple of days much lighter and gigglier. Hush, it's a word. For your reference, I have finally finished the series this week, and you did in fact leave me crying at my kitchen table at 1:30am Sunday morning. I hope you're happy. ;D

    I approach names in a similar way to yours. Names just happen. I don't put very much stress into them unless I find that everyone around me pronounces them differently from the way I would; in that case I tend to get frustrated and alter them just enough.

    I ran into a weird 'problem' a few months ago, however. I made the mistake of letting a co-worker read my current draft. Along with telling me one of my favorite characters was a pedophile, she told me that I shouldn't name my main city what it is, because there's a popular book series with the same important city name. (We're not talking Harry Potter, here. It's one of those tough-chick-vampire-hunter type series that she was referring to).

    Have you run into that problem before- before or after a book was published? How much care do you put into it? This applies to names in other people's books as well as real-life places/people/organizations, as you've run into with Blackwater...only established, instead of popping up later.

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    1. Ok as Michael's out back getting in a fight again, I'm still in the pub watching over his Guinness, so hope you do not mind me butting in with this while we wait.

      What happened to me was that I got to the editing stage (still there) of a novel I called 'The Inheritance,' you know the feeling, could have been a more original title, but it fitted really well. So I relaxed, joined an internet writers group and guess what? Yep there was a title called 'The Inheritance' waiting to be reviewed for a critique for the introductory chapters. Ended up re naming mine; 'Burden of Truth' which actually was far better than the original.

      It just came to me like the story and characters did. No sweat, like it was pre-ordained or something. Sometimes things just happen. Who's to know why, and why fight it.

      Well guess I'll have to drink his pint as well. Did you notice the St.Patrick's Day pub was empty, he got a shiner after that one, but don't tell him I told you. OK.

      Ha - Just kidding.

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  4. I'm really surprised no one looked at the image at the start of this post and replied, "...Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

    Funny you should say that Tyler I was out at a pub last night at a friend's birthday gathering. No fight though.

    To be honest Christina (or can I call you Christy?) I wouldn't knowingly use a "well-known" term or name in a book I was writing. Well-known meaning most people likely to read my work would make the connection. There's no way I would call a character of mine Frodo. On the other hand I might name a character Winston Smith--and in fact did name a character Winston Stewart. (In case you aren't aware, Winston Smith is the main character of George Orwell's 1984.) I just don't feel our two books are in the same scope and the name is far more common and therefore less likely to stand out as repeated as say Frodo. That said, after publishing Crown I read the first GRRM book and saw the first character I was introduced to was named Royce. My only reaction was "Great minds..."

    Book titles are a different animal. There are other "Wintertide"s out there, but none are well-known and I was confident I could control that title. Even now after the novel is no longer available under that title, (with the exception of a a Mincraft gaming mod) my book dominates the top of the search engines. but the point is you don't want to pit your infant book against an established heavy weight, so don't name your book Game of Thrones, or Twilight (which I think someone actually did.)

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    1. Because I didn't write it down doesn't mean that I didn't think it...

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  5. Hey, I like Mauvin and Fannen's names just they way they are.

    I find naming to be one of the most difficult things to do. Just ask Christy, she knows how long I take before deciding on a name for any character of mine. It's good to hear that I'm not the only one looking at street signs, or just typing random letters in hopes of figuring out a name. I think it's easier to build the world around the character, what they do, and their personality than finding a name for them. Often times Christy or Abby will throw names out there to help me along (for better or worse in some cases).

    From reading your blog is sounds like I need to start keeping a list. It certainly would make it a lot easier to decide on a character's name.

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  6. In my work I tend to do both. Sometimes I pick names out of thin air, other times I look for historical context. I like to use different languages, too, since I speak fluent Greek and my wife fluent Arabic. So 'Batal'---the title of my hero, means "warrior" in Arabic. The Potamis River in Greek translates to River River, since potamis means river. My favorite is "Ilmarinen", which the natural paradise from where my characters originate, which is also the name of a Finnish hero in the Kalevala.

    I have no problem with any of the names in your book, except for Riyria, mainly because I can't pronounce words with too many 'r's. I have a hard time saying 'roar' so maybe it's just me. There is no letter 'r' in Greek, after all.

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  7. Great post, Michael! I have started collecting names recently, and I find it makes the creation process a lot smoother. I linked to your blog post in my own; hope that's ok. ( http://hgbleackley.com/2012/05/23/xposting-on-writing-author-michael-j-sullivan-on-names/ )

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