By Any Other Name…

Names are important to me.  (No, not my own.  I hardly *know* my own name, because sometimes I go by my maiden name, and sometimes by my married name, and more often than not, I stumble verbally when I introduce myself to folks, which makes them ask if I’ve only recently gotten married…  But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.)

Names.  They convey a tremendous amount of information about a story’s world.

In my Glasswrights series, I constructed a carefully caste-bound society, where the station of every person was immediately identified by the number of syllables in his or her name (merchants had two syllables; guildsmen three, etc.)  This system created challenges for me, as a writer.  The five-syllable noble and priest names could easily become unwieldy, requiring a lot of judicious editing of some passages.  But the value of defining a society so different from ours far outweighed the cost of creative writing.

In a long-trunked traditional fantasy novel, I relied on Slavic mythology to create some blood-thirsty gods and their minions who hoped to enslave the earth.  Slavic names seemed a natural for those characters, and I spent many hours with online baby-naming sites, finding the perfect villainous monikers.  Often, I could not find a name that had the meaning I wanted to convey, so I worked with an English-Russian dictionary as well, looking up specific words, transliterating the Cyrillic characters as best I could, and then twisted the results into something that would register as Cool Character Name for readers.

My current work in progress has a loose affiliation with the French language.  I’m populating my wholly imaginary world with a dozen gods, and I’m creating the names of those divinities, drawing on my high school knowledge of French.  Sometimes, the naming is easy, but other times I leave in blanks, until I can develop a name that works.  Often, I make global changes, when I conclude that a name is too obvious, or does not ring true for the story I’m creating.  (“Mort” for the god of death?  Well, yeah, it works from the French perspective.  But how many readers will think of their Uncle Mortimer when they read it?)

I recently finished reading MOCKINGJAY, the final volume in Suzanne Collins’s YA trilogy.  I thought that all three books were wonderfully crafted, from a page-turner perspective, and I devoured each of them.  Most of the names, though, drove me nuts throughout the story.  “Peeta”, to me, sounded like a child’s inability to pronounce Peter, and the name itself registered as “female” to my ear.  How could Prim(rose) be named after a real plant, when Katniss was a made-up name?  (I did appreciate the use of Roman-ish names for characters from the Capitol, at least for some of them…)

How about you?  What naming strategies do you use when you’re writing?  What books have leaped out for you as particularly well-structured from a naming perspective?

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  1. 1. karen wester newton

    Ditto the Katniss thing. Let me add that just calling the city “Capital” was right out of The Simpsons.

    If I’m making up a world, I tend to get out the “Baby Names from Around the World” book and pick a country or region and stick with that, although I will alter the name if it’s too hard to pronounce. I did a fantasy where most of the people had Polish names but for the region where folks were sort of yokels, I gave the characters the most archaic French names I could find (my little joke).

  2. 2. Erin K. Coughlin

    I love the name Katniss. I think it suits her character so well (it sounds harsh but there’s also a softness). Also it’s a durable plant that provides food while a primrose is something delicate but beautiful (see Prim). I didn’t mind that one is a real flower and one is made up because these stories are supposed to take place in a world that is half our own and half a fantastic futuristic world. I also like the the people in the Capitol all have Roman sounding names.

    However.

    I completely agree with you about Peeta. It does sound like a girl’s name/Peter mispronounced. I don’t like Gale’s name either. It’s a girl’s name to me. I know it’s usually spelled Gail for a girl, but I have never met a man named Gale. Grr.

  3. 3. Deborah Blake

    I just started a new novel with a protagonist who is descended from Gypsies, so I went online to look up Gypsy last names. Would you believe the two most common ones were Cooper and Smith? (How exotic–not!) Based on the occupations, I guess. I did eventually find a more interesting last name, but the process made me laugh.

    Deborah, who is still using her married name although she was divorced in 1987 :-)

  4. 4. Bree

    I steal my students’ names and play around by changing a letter or two. That way the character’s name doesn’t automatically register as one of my students, and hopefully sounds more fantasy-ish as well.

  5. 5. Mindy Klasky

    Karen – I kept reaching back to some Orson Scott Card books with “Capitol” being the main city! And may I say, you’re a brave woman, going with Polish names! So many are such a challenge to pronounce!

    Erin – I think the thing that threw me about Katniss was that I kept hearing “catnip” and I kept thinking “cattail”, and then, when she didn’t get along with the one cat present in the book… I do agree, though, that Collins set up the plant to be a good symbol for the girl’s life. As for Gale? The only man I know with the name is very weak and wimpy, and I kept picturing him instead of the competitor Peeta truly was… That, of course, is a danger with *any* name, that we’ll know someone with a similar moniker!

    Deb – I didn’t know that about Roma names, but it sort of makes sense. I’m glad you found something more exotic for storytelling purposes!

Author Information

Mindy Klasky

Mindy Klasky is the author of eleven novels, including WHEN GOOD WISHES GO BAD and HOW NOT TO MAKE A WISH in the As You Wish Series. She also wrote GIRL'S GUIDE TO WITCHCRAFT, SORCERY AND THE SINGLE GIRL, and MAGIC AND THE MODERN GIRL, about a librarian who finds out she's a witch. Mindy also wrote the award-winning, best-selling Glasswrights series and the stand-alone fantasy novel, SEASON OF SACRIFICE. Visit site.

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