NANP: To Name Or Not To Name

Today I have Jocelyn Koehler on Names: A New Perspective to share her thoughts on the whole “deeper meaning behind names” theme and her process of finding the right names for her characters and settings, etc. As with all the other posts in the series so far, this one is also a very good read, and I hope you all enjoy it too! Her work sounds fantastic too, and I’m hoping to get around to reading it soon!

PrintTo Name or Not to Name

by Jocelyn Koehler 

If you’ve read the previous installments in this series of posts, you don’t need me to tell you that names are important. Writers spend hours agonizing over the names of their characters and settings. Done well, names also provide built-in backstory that tells the reader what to expect. When Phillippe and Hakon are both offered a choice of weapons before a fight, do you even have to ask who is going for the rapier and who will grab the battleaxe?

This week, I was going to sort through my stories and pick out a few names to explain my own thought process for picking them, when I realized something rather important. In a lot of my stories, I don’t name the characters or places at all. Just lazy? Not exactly. My schtick, you see, is fairy tale-inspired fantasy. And in fairy tales, archetypes are a huge element of the structure. Fairy tale fiction, by definition, deals with those characters that are so familiar to most people that it’s easy to stereotype them: the pretty princess, the ugly old hag, the noble and not-too-bright hero, the trustworthy but dotty old wizard. Of course, many writers who take fairy tales as inspiration do name their characters, giving these universal types individual and distinct personalities to make their story special. But, like it or not, these archetypes are here to stay. (Just ask Disney, which reinforces these stereotypes even when it pretends to break them down.) Hence, a writer can get away with using characters who are only ever identified by their role as the Princess, the Evil Queen, or the Hero. (To fall into the rabbit hole of folklore archetypes, read about the Aarne-Thompson Classification System, which assigns every type of folk story its own number.)

So when I recast several traditional German fairy tales for my collection The Way Through the Woods, I had to decide whether to go with those universal archetypes, or individualize my characters by giving them names. In most cases, I did a little of both. For my gothic Cinderella retelling Ashes, Ashes, the heroine Cindrelle got a slight spin on the usual name, but no one else gets a name at all, because (frankly) it doesn’t matter. This is Cindrelle’s story. Even the prince remains unnamed, because if I had named him, it would have revealed the whole plot twist. He’s still an archetype…just not the one most readers expect.

Another strength of unnaming is that by doing so, you can give your stories a sense of timelessness (and placelessness).  I refused to give names to the characters of my short story The Verse, where my aim was to show that the event could happen almost anywhere…so assigning names would have actually been distracting. It’s also possible to name things on a way that doesn’t lock them down. For example, Cindrelle’s story takes place in a larger fairy tale world that I called the Nine Kingdoms. By keeping the name deliberately vague, I did  few things: I allowed myself to develop the various cultures of the world at a slower pace, I could reinforce the isolation created by the massive forest that divides the kingdoms, and (most importantly) I left some room for the reader to participate.

I think that it’s really important to remember that readers aren’t just sponges awaiting an info-dump from the author. Especially for readers of speculative fiction, half the fun is adding your own imaginings to the story on the page. If you want to dream up sideline characters or spin off someone’s history, you can do that. Names are important, but when authors become too specific or dictatorial in how they names people and places, its almost as if they don’t trust the reader to enter their world at all. The blank space on a map is often the most intriguing. Why read fantasy or science fiction if everything is already explored and catalogued?

Now, that doesn’t mean that naming is bad. Would Katniss be as kick-ass if she were just “the girl”? Of course not. Would I be sad if I couldn’t reference the Kobayashi Maru as a shorthand metaphor? I’d be super sad. Particularly in a series, or a well-established property (think Star Wars, Warhammer, or even the Dresden Files) most of the names are locked in, as fixed as they are familiar. And that’s a good thing. As a reader, I enjoy the familiarity of those worlds, and obviously, in a shared world, you can’t start from scratch every time. But it’s important to remember that those worlds have been created over years…in early works, the creators often put in hints of people and places to come, with giving too much away.

When authors choose to leave something unnamed, it can have a very powerful effect. For instance, in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, the whole point of the story is how the protagonist is driven to discover the secret names of things, because that is the key to his world’s strongest magic. And of course, keeping those names hidden gives the reader a very good reason to keep turning pages! Similarly, when JK Rowling made her antagonist so scary that most folks only called him “He Who Must Not Be Named”, it told the reader so much about the characters who defied that taboo by speaking his name out loud.

As a reader, I like to have some space for imagination in a story, no matter how well-developed and detailed it is. So when I write a story, I try to leave a little space for the reader to fill in. Humans love naming things…it’s what we do. It means something when a writer chooses to withhold a name until an appropriate moment in the story, because in a way, it allows the reader to share in that naming. The revelation of a name can be funny, frightening, or cathartic…but it should always be interesting.

*****

Jocelyn Koehler on Twitter, Web.

The next guest is Adam Christopher on the 14th January. You can find the full (and updated!) schedule in the link up top.

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Posted on January 11, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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