A post about… Naming

It’s just something of interest.

After finally breaking the 6,000 word mark on the other (other) writing project I’m working on at the moment City House which I realise I have not said anything about on this blog (nor the other³ book The Tower) I thought I might just talk a bit about naming characters. Now the lead character in City House is called Samuel, because I could not think of anything better and it’s quite similar to Sumulael (name of the lead character in The Tower, of my Yog-Sothoth-worpshipping cultist char, and title of this blog) which I only got because it’s faintly Babylonian/Sumerian and that’s the setting for that one. So I stole from myself and then anglicised. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the name Samuel, and indeed I’ve grown to refer to the character as such and have even considered some links between the two characters across the fictional centuries, but it doesn’t actually mean anything. I didn’t specifically choose Samuel out of all of the potential names in the universe because it was the one true name or anything like that, it just works in a fairly standard sort of way. I guess I was just bummed that Luke Skywalker and Hiro Protagonist had already been taken… which reminds me that the character is also one of those guys with only one name, which is maybe a little weak…

I’ve seen these sites online that proclaim all sorts of new age thinking about writing, and one of the phrases I see most used in the FAQ of how-to-write-a-book (scribble with a pen/tap on a keyboard = job done, non?) is the old ‘naming a character is like naming a new baby.’ I know what they mean to say, that it’s your literary baby, your creation that you’re bringing into the world and the last thing you want is for your child’s name to be the source of much amusement for book agent bullies and mean kid reviewers. Through having worked in a number of schools over the past few years, I’ve come across kids called all kinds of things, one of my favourites was a certain Quest Usher, but I’ve met several Siouxsies and even a girl named Pebbles Galaxy. Perhaps the minotaur barbarian Bjorkus Khârn (he grew a second name in honour of that which influenced his creation) seems a little tame in comparison? It’s another horrible cliché but it’s pretty easily demonstrated: fiction has to make sense, truth much less so. Take the singer of a well-known UK electro/hardcore band, Roughton Reynolds. If all, or even a handful, of your characters in book were called similar things you’d be wondering if the book wasn’t co-written by Stan Lee – and you would certainly doubt it’s credibility.

Fantastical scenarios occur all the time in the real world, but there seems to be a general perception amongst audiences that unless the rules are being bent in a deliberate and widely accepted fashion, that you must inject a hefty dose of dull grey normality into your fictional work, otherwise it is apparently too unbelievable. This is what they mean when they say ‘gritty British’ cinema, for example, because all the boxes are ticked in the places people expect to be the correct ones. Contrast this with someone who obviously bends the rules and delights in it, like Tarantino. Now I’m a fairly big fan of Tarantino’s work, and sometime I think he just nails it (other times I think the story is a pile of shit, but it’s just done in such an incredibly stylish and cool way that I can’t help but like it). In Kill Bill, the character name O-ren Ishii speaks of her Japanese/Chinese roots and, from the perspective of Western audiences at least, adds some degree of believability – compared to The Bride, however, this name is obviously there because it symbolises a concept, the entirety of the character, not just what their parents named them.

Jesse Custer,  for example, is a clear nod to Jesus Christ and that’s the whole point – he can speak the Word of God. Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt both reveal something of the character before you ever meet them (the cocky, lone wolf type and the bloated, Mafia-esque crime lord). These names have meaning both because of their characters, and because of the additional meaning they confer on to the character, they wouldn’t be the same without those names and they wouldn’t be anywhere near as good. When looking back at the research we did on Russian naming conventions for Head Games, it is interesting to see how much of a person’s name does and does not get used, given any context. Equally, how many time a day do you refer to someone as ‘mate’ or simply neglect to address them directly? Is anything that I’ve just written honestly true of the real world? Is there a trope, a subcategory of names that you think ‘ah yes, all Stephens are like such-and-such’ because of the Stephens that you have met? It’s a big subject, and this is only a tiny part of it. I honestly don’t know if Samuel will make it to the final edit of the book (still some 24,000 words to go, mind) but his inclusion or exclusion will be determined solely by whether he is actually the character depicted, or if it just has to be somebody else with a much better name.


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