Writing Reality: What’s in a name?

21/04/2014 at 06:00 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


As a writer, you have at some point probably spent an agonizing amount of time thumbing through every baby book and name-etymology website you could find, in search of that set of letters which would sum up the person you are creating – whether a child or an adult. The forename is our personal identity – if we choose to keep it – and the ways in which it can be used, added to, altered and spoken aloud, bring to light a lot of the subtle interactions which go on every day, as part of human life. It is our stamp of identity, distinguishable from the inherited family surname, and though it may be commonly used throughout particular cultures / age groups, it still has a unique relevancy to our personalities. It is, after all, one of the first identifiable set of phonemes we are likely to hear and respond to, when we are small. And unless circumstances dictate otherwise, such as a name-change by deed poll, your forename will be what is left of you after death, written in cards and letters, on gravestones, in the minds of others – along with all the relevant memories which are attached. It is these which make us human.

Connotation, Denotation

There is much to be said for the word “misnomer” in this context. Some people really do not “look like” their names. You have probably come across at least one person who didn’t seem to “fit” their name, whether through connotative imagery – the associations we make with words, through cultural / historical / social references – or through detonative meaning. My grandmother once told me of a friend called Grace, who was in the habit of breaking more china plates, and bones in her body than anybody else she knew.

This was, of course, not that poor woman’s fault. But it is interesting to note how a name can seem to influence our perspective – and expectations – of others, as well as ourselves. Living up to a surname or title is one thing, but to live up to a forename too? If it has been consciously passed on from one family member to another, or was given in honour of somebody admired, how might this affect our perception of the world, and ourselves?

This is worth paying attention to, when naming your characters and creating people. How might they choose to react to – or disregard – the associations which surround their fore/last names? What is expected of them by others, and how does this shape their relationships? Is there a running tradition of naming a child after a parent (father-son, mother-daughter etc), and if this is not observed, how might the narrative be suffused with conflict as a result? (I had a friend in school whose uncle took such offence at the boy’s father’s disinclination to observe family tradition, that he referred to my classmate only by his middle name – which happened to be his own, carried over by several generations.)

If you’re looking for balance between the projected image of a name, and the context/tone of your work, it might be best to avoid “loaded” names that carry heavy connotations – perhaps from a well-known fictional text (e.g. “Titania”/ “Romeo”, from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet”, respectively) or a period of history (“Hitler”, whether for a protagonist or an antagonist, is not advised.)

Then again, as a way of subtly influencing the audience’s perception of a character – or perhaps to give them a gentle nudge in the ribs – there is always the option of allusion. This is subjective to what the audience already knows, and how they might link this to your work (e.g. if you were writing a tragedy, the name Cassandra would be picked up on by those familiar with the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, of Greek mythology.) As ever, context is a key element.

Sound Effects

I am always a bit startled to hear my name in full, because it came to be associated with trouble, in childhood. My parents and teachers were in the habit of calling me “Rai” under normal circumstances, but at times of tension, the simple utterance of my full title would be reprimand enough to pull me up short, since it was used so rarely. Tone and volume of course played their part, but even now, I get an uneasy “uh oh” quirk of the mind to hear it; even when the cause is a simple call for attention in a more formal setting.

Be aware (and wary) when using alliteration in naming characters. On the one hand, this can create a useful mnemonic effect, especially when applied to a role that you want to make more identifiable from others (protagonist / antagonist) – but overuse of alliteration can dilute its effect, with names jumbling into one another if they have too-similar phonemes (e.g. protagonist called Katherine/Catherine, antagonist called Karrie/Carrie.)

Alliteration, and other sound-effects such as assonance and sibilance, can be used to emphasize the sound-symbolism of names. “Salazar Slytherin” will forever be a favourite of mine, with its sibilant hiss referencing the snake motif that is a recurrent theme of the Harry Potter series, which the founder of Slytherin house was associated with – as well as the spitfire language of snakes, Parseltongue. When combined with dialogue and/or narrative that “echoes” the sound-imagery of a name, the effect can be startling.

“‘It matters,’ said Hermione, speaking at last in a hushed voice, ‘because being able to talk to snakes was what Salazar Slytherin was famous for. That’s why the symbol of Slytherin house is a serpent.'”

“‘They called Slytherin himself Serpent-tongue.'” – pgs 146-9, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling.

The names which J.K Rowling chose for her four school houses seem to fit quite neatly with the general characteristics ascribed to each, through the respective ideals of each founder, and the symbolism of sound (e.g. Hufflepuff = predominance of “soft-friendly” phonemes vs. Slytherin = sibilance, “shifting/sinister”, as of snake movement.)

Do vocalise your own choice of names before applying them to characters. Take into consideration how they sound in your mind, how they feel when spoken, how they look when written out. Do they appear wonderfully exotic, but cause an ache in the mouth just trying to pronounce them? How easily will the audience recall their sound-associations; how can this work in your favour, when trying to promote a certain “image” of a character (more / less appealing) and how might this correspond with their personality / agenda over the course of the narrative? Will reading/speaking aloud the name of one character, be a more enjoyable experience than another – how can this be manipulated for maximum engagement?

Honorific

As the word “honour” denotes, the use of an honorific is often a mark of respect. The Japanese suffixes -san -kun and -chan, for example, can instantly change the manner of expression between two people, and give an insight into their relationship: formal/informal, person/impersonal. Woe betide the employee who addresses his superior with -kun, which tends to be used between peers of an equal social standing.

In England, our most commonly recognized honorifics include Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr, etc; these can be used in salutations, and dropped thereafter if appropriate (such as when an equal footing is found in conversation between strangers.) Where the honorific is maintained, the mark of respect/authority is made clear – in the House of Commons, John Bercow will be referred to as “Mr Speaker.” In my workplace, the leader of each team is known as the “sergeant” – an honorific which, depending on the level of familiarity between staff, can often be contracted to “Sarge”, which can itself become a type of honorific-nickname.

Depending on your characters and their interactions with one another, consider the following:

* Who is dependant on who? Is an honorific used as part of a plot device and/or characterization, to emphasise the need of one character for the aid of another (sucking up, fawning for favour, flattery – bestowing an honorific which might not be factually applicable.)

* Conversely, is the relationship an antagonistic one, in which a character bestows an honorific to be insulting – either by exaggeration (“his Nibs / her Ladyship” for an overbearing and demanding person) or by diminishing their status in life (the Japanese suffix -chan, applied to a peer with whom one is not overly familiar, would be troublesome; applied to a figure of higher authority, it could spell disaster.)

* Who possesses the higher authority? Do they require an honorific, and if so, how does this bear upon the relationship with others of your cast; can it be dropped in favour of the first name (personal, a warmer approach) or is it required at all times, to instil a continuum of respect? (e.g. the Japanese sensei is often used in favour of a first name altogether, as students would refer to the highest authority figure in a school as “headmaster”.)

* How important are hierarchies in your plot; who adheres to what in the narrative? How sensitive are your characters to social mores, to class status, to the often-unvoiced but very much prevalent plays of power in the workplace? All of these can be conveyed to the audience through the simple act of bestowing an honorific to a certain character … and the choice of another character to ignore this rule (e.g. a student addressing a headmaster by his first name/surname, without due consideration for the latter’s higher authority – unless permission was first given to do so), may provide a nuanced insight to the relationships that form part of the plot.

Nicknames / terms of endearment

Opinions differ when it comes to the giving / receiving of nicknames, and terms of endearment. My aunt is forever reminding people that her youngest daughter was baptised “Jennifer”, thereby cancelling out all diminutive forms such as Jen/Jenny. I have no argument with that, since it is a lovely name. But nicknames and contracted forms of a forename, can serve their purpose in the right setting – such as a fast-moving game of football or basketball. I speak from the experience of having a team mate back in school, who insisted on being referred to only as “Sebastian”, and refused to acknowledge all variations. Words can tumble about when you’re trying to run and yell at the same time. We opted for hand signals in his direction, not all of them polite, depending on how he was playing.

Friends and family often use diminutive forms of a given name, to strengthen the bond between them (Jim = James, Gabby = Gabrielle.) This can vary between social circles – online, I’m more commonly known by my Twitter handle, Raishimi; this wouldn’t be applicable offline, at the Nick for example, where I’m known as Rach. But to family, who have of course known me the longest, I will always be Rai (pronounced Ray), which was apparently how I referred to myself as a baby.

Keep in mind how a name can be used as the smallest citation of an emotion – the equivalent of a hand’s compression on the shoulder, or a long look. The less people there are who hold the meaning behind a nickname, the longer its secret emotional attachment may be preserved.

Shared life experiences and circumstances can form an attachment that is best summed up by the link of a nickname. A gang member may refer to his/her companions only by their street names when in that setting, to preserve the mentality – should they wish to avoid drawing attention to activities, they may automatically slip back into the names which their families are familiar with, when at home. This forms a contract of code, with the names becoming symbolic of another lifestyle.

Having grown up in an environment where it was quite common to be known as anything from “sweetpea” to “darling” – that’s before we get onto the nicknames, which we won’t – this now translates over into how I interpret / convey levels of familiarity in social interactions.

“Liebling” (German, “darling”) is one frequently used when talking with friends on Twitter – though it is generally reserved for those who understand what it means, in terms of language-translation and the symbolism behind it. German tends to sneak into my speech when the setting is casual (on Twitter, or when speaking with family), but in a professional capacity or when speaking with those of higher authority, it makes less of an appearance. For me, the second language – in particular, the use of its endearments – has become symbolic of familiarity and affection. I still refer to my ex as “Liebs” – a contraction of “Liebling” – which became something of a nickname while we were together, and has now stuck. It is equivalent to calling someone “hon/hun”, a contraction of “honey.”

“Liebe” – Love – is the strongest sign of affection I can give, and is used rarely. It holds the same symbolic power as the use of a first name, which generally happens when I wish to make a point, either in written text or in dialogue. This can be a useful angle when there is the presence of subtext, either in an implied emotion or message.
Repetition of a name can enforce the presence of personality; it can ascribe all the nuances of life to something that might otherwise be viewed as an inanimate object / subhuman being:

“Catherine is my daughter’s name. Please, show us your strength,” Senator Martin said in closing, “release Catherine
unharmed.”
“Boy, is that smart,” Starling said. She was trembling like a terrier. “Jesus, that’s smart.” …
“Why did she keep saying ‘Catherine,’ why the name all the time?”
“She’s trying to make Buffalo Bill see Catherine as a person. They’re thinking he’ll have to depersonalize her, he’ll have to see her as an object before he can tear her up. Serial murderers talk about that in prison interviews, some of them. They say it’s like working on a doll.”
– Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs

With regards to how your characters address one another, keep the following in mind:

* Levels of authority, hierarchies of power – when is it permissible to relax these boundaries, to allow for such terms of endearment in social / personal / professional interactions?

* How might contracted versions of an endearment / honorific become nicknames (e.g. a uniformed sergeant being referred to as “Sarge”, or sometimes “Skipper/Skip” (as in the nautical “captain.”)

* How can the use of endearments/nicknames convey intimacy in a relationship – or conversely, how might their omission display an emotional reserve, as with professional/impersonal boundaries? If two characters who were once friends then fall out, how might this be reflected in their manner of addressing one another? (honorific-surname brought back to replace a term of endearment / first name / nickname = cold civility. “Mr — was just leaving”, in lieu of former warmth found in the use of a forename.)

* When does it become permissible, in the development of your narrative/plot, for the use of first names in social interactions between characters, if such an observance of etiquette must be made?

Acknowledgement, Possession

A name can be altered with personal choice, by deed poll; it can be adapted to suit the mutual agreement of intimacy between friends and lovers. But the act of taking away a name – of denying its use to the original bearer – can create a striking message of possession and adversity.

In the Studio Ghibli film “Spirited Away“, the heroine Chihiro Ogino comes up against the witch Yubaba, who controls a bathhouse for the spirit world, in which the latter may come to refresh themselves. When Chihiro approaches Yubaba to ask for a job – as part of the rescue mission of her parents, who have eaten food meant for the spirits and have subsequently been turned into pigs – the latter agrees, with a highly symbolic condition: she claims for her own, with magic, some of the characters (kanji) which make up Chihiro’s name.

Sen

Thus does Chihiro become Sen; her true identity belongs to Yubaba, for as long as the witch holds onto what makes up her name. The kanji becomes a written representation of the girl’s identity, which in turn is bound up in the existence of her name – both of which she must strive to remember, if she is to escape and succeed in rescuing her parents.

The simple act of acknowledging a name in conversation can be a gift of subtle intimacy – particularly with its repetition – or it may serve as a marked point of reference when drawing someone’s attention to a thought / idea. In creating characters, you leave their thoughts, memories and ideals behind the identifying stamp of a name, for the audience to find and latch onto. You are taking someone who was a work of fiction, and turning them into a reality.

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3 Comments

  1. Joanne Blaikie said,

    Found this really helpful especially as I have used hierarchy and nicknames which follow a code in the fantasy world I created. My character’s names are based on or taken from place names and all have three syllables. I have had to change some after reading them aloud because well yes, they just didn’t roll off the tongue very well.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking and useful article. :))

  2. templar165 said,

    Interesting piece. I often found classmates in school as well as college being referred to by entirely different names at home and outside.

    It always occurred to me that each of them ended up living a double life simply because of the names they went by and the characters/persona they had to assume to live up to each name. Makes a lot more sense now.

  3. drewchial said,

    I’m swinging back to the belief that you should compile these Writing Reality pieces into an Ebook. Soon, I’m going to park myself in a coffee shop love seat, with my iPad, and read through every entry just like it was a book.

    I cannot emphasize enough how much I appreciate your long form writing and technical expertise.

    Names are always trouble for me. They’re speed bumps in the process. There’s the etymology of names to consider, and there’s the feeling they leave with the character. Another thing that’s alway tricky for me is when there are two character with the same consonant at the beginning of their name. I’ve accidentally mixed them up in the scenes they share.

    I love writing characters who’ve warped their given names into nicknames.

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