When you begin a story, what do you see?
A landscape of danger and mystery, perhaps. A relic with power to change the world dropped in the rain while fleeing the enemy. A duel of ambitions, weapons poised to take life and light of all.
You see a brittle world, crushed and smoldering. You know how to save it.
We don’t always begin with the conflict or the setting. Sometimes, we begin with an identity, one which turns the wheels of the plot in ways we are not yet sure, but we know the workings are hidden there, beneath the face of this person.
“It gives me great pleasure, a good name. I always in writing start with a name. Give me a name and it produces a story, not the other way about normally.”J.R.R. Tolkien
Now I’m sure this method worked wonderfully for Mr. Tolkien, as I believe he’s gotten himself published a few times. However, we other creatives just do not always have a name to go with and find ourselves going “the other way about” quite a bit. Let’s explore a few of those situations together.
When a key scene and its conflict are etched in my mind, the character names are but one detail in a sea of details–not to be fussed about until the rest of the moment is captured. That was my approach in “The Hungry Mother” (free to read in Mobius: The Journal of Social Change!) where I could see the con artist and the mark engage in a rundown park, but not hear their names. So, my first draft had nothing but alphabet letters for character names to keep them straight. Only after that first draft was completed did I consider the backgrounds of the characters and setting to discover Puritan-style names for the homely, rural Remembrace and her daughter, Tace. But what of my network marketing hustler? Social media loves to dub such people “Karens,” so there was that name…eh, too on the nose. So I looked back into my own memories of bullies and deceives to uncover the name of a girl who was a real jerk during our school days: Nicole.
The woman turns away from the old man and locks eyes with Nicole. For a moment, Nicole is a freshman on the bus all over again, snickering at the pathetic group of Old Sancs boarding to attend school at New Sanctuary thirteen miles away, and none was more pathetic than the hunched creature in patched rags named Remembrance Priest. That was the creature Nicole pictured when she messaged that name and a hundred others about Suzy Ray! and its wonders. That was the creature Nicole pictured when agreeing to meet in this town forgotten among the fields of corn and cow shit.
“Oh, my, gosh,” Nicole says. Normally she must count to three between each word so she sounds as wondrously pleased as possible, but Remembrance’s total lack of hunchback makes the greeting almost genuine. “Look at you, Mem! Has it really been ten years?” And a part of Nicole wriggles at how ten years has affected Mem. Her skin is smoother, firmer. Her braid of thick hair looks strong enough for a rope swing. Was Mem always this tall? Did another Ray of Sunshine beat me here?
Mem waves like the homecoming queen she never was. “Hiii!” She says and embraces Nicole so tightly Nicole almost spills her drink. Mem’s lips press through Nicole’s dark curly hair and onto her Suzy Ray! sunshine studs. “Sooo good to see you, Nicole. You look sooo pretty.”
Ten years clearly hadn’t taken the sliding whine out of her voice.
When the conflict shines so clearly before us, we must capture every line, every movement, as quickly as we can before that light dims. It is all too easy to allow our exploration of names get in the way of storytelling, so using the simplest identifier possible will keep characters straight until their true identities come to you.
I’ll be the first to admit I got lost in names for my Fallen Princeborn novels. Nearly all the names went through multiple changes as I researched history and better understood my velidevour world. Only Charlotte’s name remain unchanged, for it was a choice close to my maternal heart. Bo and I had been considering the name for our daughter-to-be, but in the end we gave Blondie a different name and Charlotte remained bodiless, name of strength, fluidity, tenacity, beauty and…I just had to put that identity, that soul, to use. The different versions of “Charlotte” also allowed the girl to make her name a boundary in and of itself, which helped those around her–and readers–see when she had finally accepted the friendship and trust of another.
“Come now, Charlie, don’t leave.” Liam’s fingertips graze her hand.
“Don’t call me Charlie.” That’s for family. You are not my family.
“Cate’s the luckiest princeborn ever, having a brother like you,” Charlotte lets the thought out, surprising herself a little, but sorry for the slip? Nah.
Dorjan blushes. “Well then, here.” He pulls an extremely fast hat trick of hair tug, ear flick, nose tweak. “Consider yourself an Honorary Durant.”
And now Charlotte can’t help but hug them both, these two who were willing to fight alongside her before they had known her a single day. “Call me Charlie.”
The House of Artair holds many Gaelic names. I wanted this family to be rooted to the Isles, intelligent and fierce. “Artair” is a version of Artur, which is Gaelic for “Noble Bear.” Considering the vicious head of the House, Bearnard (“strong as a bear”), transforms into a bear, this was a perfect fit. Liam’s name was a tricky one; it needed to carry the weight of his parents’ aspirations as well as the truth of his inner spirit. Plus, as a writer, I wanted the name to carry a timeless feel to it. Discovering Liam means “resolute protector” was nothing short of a miracle. Liam’s parents are determined to see him lead all velidevour into a new age of dominance; Liam desires to protect Charlotte and those who have come to support him and fight alongside him. And it’s a timeless name. 🙂
Granted, we sometimes allow ourselves a name purely because it sounds cool. Disraeli is the name of a Celestine, offspring of stars and magic. Why did I pick the name Disraeli? Because I saw it in a magazine and thought, That’s a really cool name. It was originally the name I intended for Arlen, but when I realized the need for the princeborn names to carry meaning and history, I knew I had to change that name. Still, I had to find someone to hold that name, and a creature of the stars just happened to fly by…
The world can help us discover character names, too. As I worked out the history of River Vine and the velidevour trapped there, I could see the natural setting would mean everything to them. They were souls who used animal and human bodies to hunt their prey as dictated by wicked The Lady of the Pits. Nature above ground would be their peace, their refuge. This led to me using plant names for many of them, such as Nettle, Poppy, and Campion. Does your own story-world have ties to nature, the elements, or some other unique feature in the setting?
Or perhaps the very world in which you write must change. This happened to me a ways back with Middler’s Pride. The first version of the story was a co-collaboration of sorts with fantasy author Michael Dellert, but as our goals with the character changed, he continued on his world’s story arc and I continued on with the character. This meant renaming recreating the Shield Maidens’ world and practically everyone in it, starting with the protagonist Gwen.
Back to one of my favorite resources: The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook!
Now here I had to keep in mind that I was not just renaming a protagonist, but a character within a group of protagonists. This meant I did not want the characters’ names to sound alike, have the same cadence, start with the same letter, etc. Now that may sound silly–why should those impact the name if the name MEANS something amazing?–but this is an important strategy for the readers’ sake. How on earth will readers keep a group of protagonists straight if their names blend together or are easily mistaken?
So I first had to look at my own Shield Maidens whose names did not need to change: Wynne, Tegan, and Ellylw. I had chosen all these Welsh names loving how the names bounced so dramatically between simple and complex. Each starts with a unique sound and phonetically differs enough that one shouldn’t confuse them when reading aloud. But they were also all rather short, so Gwen’s new name could not be that simple. Oh, it could have the potential for a nickname–Ellylw becomes “Elle” pretty quickly–but it still needed to be longer than a couple syllables. So, I focused my search on longer Welsh names, and came across Meredydd, “Protector of the sea.” Considering Middler’s Pride is the tale of Meredydd and the other Shield Maidens rescuing the River Goddess from a cursed beast, this name felt right.
Mer watched the sunlight caress the blade. She heard footsteps, and knew the others had pulled in around her to form a half-circle. Hauling lumber would surely take them until dawn, but by dawn she’ll have this worthless batch of—
“Wynne, stand here. Tegan, right? How’s your balance?”
“Hey, what?” That circus freak, walking about like she was next in command. The bloody nerve. “You heard the captain. The best way to get that dagger down will be a ramp, and that’s going to take lumber. All we need is an axe and—”
“No we don’t.”
And I’M the upstart? “Captain Vala said—“
“She said to get the dagger.” The circus freak pressed down on each of Wynne’s shoulders. The pretty face winced, but didn’t complain. “We don’t need lumber. Just a couple good backs. Wynne, I think you can do it.”
She shriveled at the compliment. “I-I’m afraid I’m not as strong as you. I don’t want anyone getting hurt.”
“All the more reason to train up,” Meredydd tugged her arm towards the gate. Ye gods, it was soft as dough. This girl wasn’t lying. “You can’t be a Shield Maiden without power in your limbs.”
“And she’ll get there.” The circus freak grabbed Wynne’s other arm. “But not because you make her do something stupid.”
If Mer could just get Wynne behind her and away from this twit—“Would the king bestow a weapon upon an idiot?”
The circus freak’s scar across her gross face went all squiggly. “Sure, if he’s desperate.”
Wynne yowled. Tegan’s fists tightened around her hips and she screamed:
“STOP YOU’RE RIPPING WYNNE’S ARMS OFF!”
Three loud THUDS and the girls fell in a heap against the gate. Tegan coughed, shook, and ended up plopping down herself. “Look, this”—she waved at the three of them—“is stupid. Mer, you want to follow orders the idiot way? Fine. I’ll go with you. Wynne, you want to work with…”
“Sounds like a pig call.” Mer ignored Tegan’s glare. It seemed to keep her magick at bay, for one thing. And for another, the circus freak’s name did sound like a stupid pig call.
Wynne fixed her hair. Gods help her when a twig undoes her braids. “I think it’s pretty.”
The circus freak rolled her eyes as she finished catching her breath. “Just call me Elle, it’s easier.”
We are blessed to live in a world of countless tongues and histories. A single name can be the seed to a hundred variations, each unique with potential for an identity across the oceans. Whether you begin with that seed or uncover it as you dig through a story-world’s soil, be mindful of that name’s beginnings, the culture in which it is rooted. Nurture that name with the respect it deserves, and you will find a character as strong and perfect as the imaginary world you cultivate.
The Hero with No Name but a Thousand Faces will soon be upon us! Let’s not forget to celebrate some everyday absurdities, too. More author interviews are on the way, and don’t forget I’ve got Story Cuppings, a weekly podcast of first chapter reviews!
Last but not least, hopefully–HOPEFULLY–we can talk about some story stuff. 🙂
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!