Smelling Sweetly

Pink Primrose
This is not a rose

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” –William Shakespeare

When I am writing fiction, I don’t worry too much about names, either of characters or of books. I think I have a story somewhere in which the main character has no name. You see, first person means that unless they think of themselves by name, it might not easily come up. And ordinarily, I know that either a name will come to me, and I can do a find/replace on whatever placeholder I chose for that character, or I can spend a little time when I’m not in the flow of writing to research and choose a name.

It’s worth some thought in your naming schemes. Firstly, your genre. If you are writing a contemporary tale, naming is fairly easy, and there are a great deal of baby name books on the internet and easy to search by meaning, most common names, or what have you. For a historical book, slightly more difficult, but again, there are resources online. When I was writing a historical romance (yeah, I know. Maybe someday I will hold my nose, poke it to see if it wiggles, and polish it for publication) set in the twelfth century, I looked up the book of Domesday and other census lists to choose names which would fit the era. There are few things more jarring than finding a name completely out of place in a book. If you’re reading a medieval crime mystery and you find a name like Tawnya, or Jennifer, what are you going to think?

Writing SF, far future, or epic fantasy, lends some challenges of it’s own. Perhaps language has changed… yes, you should be writing in English we can all read, and please don’t provide a pronunciation guide at the beginning of your book. I see this in SF and most escpecially epic fantasy and all it makes me want to do is hurl the book as far as I can get it from me. Or at least close the sample reading box on my computer and tip-toe out of that book page as fast as my clicking fingers will let me.  Ahem, where was I?

Ah yes. If you must make up weird names that require glottal stops and whistles (don’t look at me like that. I can barely pronounce some of the English words which I know, but I can spell them!) then please, for the sake of your reader’s sanity, don’t suddenly insert a perfectly normal name in amongst them. You will make the reader stop, jarred out of her SOD, and wonder if that hapless character is perhaps from a parallel universe, even though there isn’t a hint of that in this story so far.

You may have gathered I’m not a fan of peculiar, difficult to pronounce names, and you would be correct. I would rather put that mental effort into reading the story, not having to stop and mentally work through how I’d say that name, and promptely forgetting it. It’s all Tolkein’s fault, I have decided. Especially in epic fantasy, where so much of it is a hopeless, hapless pastiche of the master, and so few who are writing it realize either what they are doing, or the depth of effort and scholarship he put into his languages, names and all. Sure, you can craft unusual names that won’t slap your reader in the face every time they see them, and it’s probably worth it if you are so inclined. But I see too many Aragon, Eowyn, Boromir rip-offs… and this is why I eschew High Fantasy most of the time.

And as for me, well, I didn’t name Lom. Sanford did, in an homage to one of our shared favorite authors. Learoyd Otheris Mulvaney, the three privates chonicled in Kipling’s Soldier’s Three, lent their surnames to my hero, who promptly decided that he loathed his given name, and chose to go by his initials. And Bella is named for a toxic plant. Many of the other supporting characters in Pixie Noir are tuckerizations. Alger, the mad pixie who comes scross in my head as a weird combination of Tesla and Gandalf, is named for my Civil Air Patrol mentor, for instance. Dorothy, the slight pixie with brown hair, is named for a friend who was an Alaskan Bush Pilot. I borrowed my cousins for Bella’s cousins… Normally I wouldn’t have, but I grew up idolizing them, and still do, they are larger than life in my eyes.

In most of my work, the names either pop into my head as I’m writing, or I use names that suit the character. Violet, the extreme introvet in Memories of the Abyss, was given an archaic name despite a contemporary setting as it suited her personality. Linnea in Vulcan’s Kittens is named after my favorite flower. If you note a theme in the flower names, that goes back to my long-term obsession  fascination with botany. In the end, try to choose names for your characters that suit the genre, the character, and aren’t too outre.

Naming works… well, titles are a whole ‘nother topic for a different day.

Rose in bloom
Roses still smell sweet, no matter what you call them.