Saturday, 24 February 2018

Names for Characters - Why so important?

What’s in a name?  A common question with answers that run surprisingly deep.  Names are like brands or images, and a name that’s easy to remember, stands out or has a nice ring to it immediately have a positive effect on those who hear or read the name.  Why else do many celebrities (and authors!) change their names if their real ones are hard to pronounce, sound strange or even funny? 

My own experience with a different surname really drove this point home to me quite dramatically, and here's the story:  I grew up with a Russian-sounding surname which no one could pronounce, so I spent the first 25 years of my life spelling it over and over and over again.  But then, when I was married to my first husband whose surname was Taylor - hey, presto!  I was suddenly very popular and well-liked, and even received compliments such as "nice name!" from a complete stranger when I introduced myself on the phone while at work! 

Nowadays, I'm happy with my second husband and his name, Underwood, which I gladly use because it's much easier to spell and pronounce than my maiden name!

With this in mind, I always consider the names of my characters very carefully, and it was an extra challenge because the setting is fantasy – or alternate history at best, so a common name like Bob or Jane just wouldn’t do.  We all have a mental image of what a Bob or Jane would look like, just as we connect an image to most other words and names.  A name determines our identity, so it's a big deal to create a character and a name to make a whole new identity with whom the reader can identify.

Although there are some great websites that generate character names of all sorts, I found that they didn’t help me at all, and so I come up with my character’s names the old-fashioned way:  just thinking, jotting them down and tossing them around in my head.  Sometimes I change a letter or two to see if the name sounds better, and then just thought about the “feel” of the name – what kind of personality the sound of the name conjures up in the mind.    When I feel reasonably happy with a new name, I google it to make sure it isn’t already “taken” by some other author or film-maker, and if it’s reasonably uncommon or even has no google search results, I’ll take it!

This is the approach I used for ‘personal’ names like Rhuna.  But in world of the Atlan Empire (Atlantean Empire) people had a more complicated formal name by which they were known (I made that bit up – but how knows what it was really like in Atlantis?!) such as Keeper of Wisdom.  This idea just came to me one day when I was thinking of how to make Atlan names stand apart from every other name, and it seemed to fit perfectly.  Atlans are given a formal name or title when they have shown a certain trait or quality.  Hence names like Guardian of Harmony, Resolver of Disputes and Wanderer of Plains.  But some names are less precise such as Softness of the Clouds, Peace of the Valley and Melody of the Dawn.

Once the characters are created and named, they have a tendency to take over their own destiny as the story is written.  This is because the characters are given certain basic traits (which often match their names) and as events unfold, I have to consider how each character would react to this event depending on their personality.  I think it’s important to keep the characters true to themselves and let them grow and change as the story unfolds, just as it would be for real-life people who are constantly growing and changing as they go through life.

Sometimes, certain characters have actually determined the outcome of a sub-plot due to their own individual view of a matter, and many times, when I’ve had to consider the next steps in a story and how each character would be affected, would they feel and react, I’ve been shown several alternate paths the story could take.   So I really must give some of the credit to the characters who have come alive on the pages of RHUNA!