NANP: Names And Riddles
Posted by Abhinav Jain
The last guest for the month of June on Names: A New Perspective is Steve Parker, author of two cracking Warhammer 40,000 short stories about a Deathwatch Kill-Team and their follow-up full length adventure in Deathwatch, recently released. I’ve read both the short stories, which are quite good, but have yet to read the novel. I’ve cut back quite a bit on my Black Library reading of late to make room for books from other publishers, and so I’m behind on that front, regrettably. If the short stories are anything to go by though, I’m sure I’ll like Deathwatch. It has generated a fair amount of positive buzz, and that’s always exciting. While I figure out when to read the book, here’s what Steve has to say on the topic of names.
by Steve Parker
I remember a riddle about names – something like, ‘What belongs uniquely to you but that everyone else uses?’ Not sure where I remember it from. It may have been one of the recent Batman games. Love that Riddler!
For something that is with us every day, such a major component of our social experience as humans (or dolphins, since we know that they have and use individual names much as we do), it’s a bit off that we don’t get to pick our own – at least, not until we’ve spent a good number of years growing into the one our parents or guardians select. By then, most people just come to accept their names. Few seem to change them. I’ve never met anyone personally who has (or, at least, anyone who admitted it).
Actors seem to think it’s a good idea. Tom Cruise guessed he mightn’t be headlining movies quite so much if he stuck with Thomas Cruise Mapother the Fourth (seriously!). The unmistakable voice of James Earl Jones almost demands a more grandiose name than the Todd Jones he was born as, doesn’t it? There are countless other examples. Look them up. It’s quite an eye-opener.
Names actually count for an awful lot, though, and that’s as true for actors as it is for characters in genre fiction. Bad naming can make or break a fictional character, just like it can turn off a Hollywood casting agent. For that reason, I tend to put a good few hours in on naming my characters.
Why all the trouble? Well, unlike meeting people for the first time in daily life, when reading fiction, we’re less inclined to simply accept names without challenge. If the name doesn’t match what we know about or expect of the character – or, perhaps even more importantly, the world of the story – we’ll be stumbling over it all the way through to the end. It can seriously ruin our enjoyment of a book. That goes for excessively difficult spelling and pronunciation in names, too.
There are times I’ve been reading a novel and, on the introduction of a fresh face, simply stopped dead thinking, Nope. That’s bollocks. She wouldn’t be called that. Not in this world/milieu.
In the case of excessively difficult pronunciation, there have been moments when I’ve thought, I’m not even trying to call her that. Too many consonants. And what’s the deal with those apostrophes? At that point, I’ll either simplify it to smooth the reading process (e.g. Anschyrnd’n-al-racchlke would be shortened to Ansch in my head) or just settle for visual recognition of the letters and not even try to hear the name as I read.
Having impotently railed against other writers for making me do all these mental gymnastics, I try to make sure my readers won’t to have to do the same during one of my books. I’ll leave it to others to decide how successful my efforts are.
Since I mostly write in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, matching the tone and style of the milieu is a primary concern. 40k is just about the darkest, grimmest milieu out there at the moment, and having a Space Marine called something as mundane or benign as Andy or Graeme or Pansy Pete would get me a short, sharp e-mail from my editor the moment he spotted it. (Ironically, one of my main characters was called Pedro, so the rule seems not to apply in the case of non-anglicised names. I’m sure Spanish-speaking readers cringed a bit, but, in my defence, it was a pre-existing character and I had no choice but to run with it. At least his second name, Kantor, was more suitably esoteric.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the general guidelines I’d offer for choosing names are similar to those given on wikihow.com on changing your own name:
- Don’t pick a name that is a racial slur, incites violence, or is just generally offensive.
- Don’t pick a name that is intentionally confusing or which involves numbers, punctuation, or is incredibly long for the sake of being confusing.
- Don’t choose the name of a celebrity or popular figure, such as Kobe Bryant or George Bush (including famous fictional characters, too).
- Don’t choose a name for fraudulent reasons, such as wanting to evade debt collectors or the law.
I think we can lose that last one for fictional characters. The others, though, should go without saying, unless you’re naming robots and the like, in which case you might opt to use a number or two in there somewhere.
Beyond that, I try to make very sure that, in the case of any pre-existing lore, I’m familiar with naming conventions already established. Luckily, I have lots of reference material. Thus, my Cadian characters have names ranging from slightly Germanic to overtly so. Many of my Crimson Fists bear names with a somewhat Mediterranean quality. And my Vostroyan Firstborn count plenty of characters with Eastern Slavic names among them. I doubt all this comes as a surprise to fans of 40k.
But how do I settle on a final name for a particular character? I’m afraid I don’t rely on anything nearly as quirky or fun as Nathan Long’s dice-rolling technique (see his entry in this series). A lot of it is just working through the options that appear to fit, feeling each one out to see if it matches my intentions for the character (I’m sure Nathan does this, too, actually – he just starts with the dice).
If any of the names I’ve noted from online lists strike me as useable, but perhaps a little too conventional, I’ll alter them just enough to suit my needs. Thus Grigory became Grigorius Sebastev, the central character in Rebel Winter. The name reflected both the pseudo-Latin commonly found in Warhammer 40,000 and the Eastern Slavic conventions expected when naming a Vostroyan character. I also thought it sounded like a good fit for him. He’s a stocky atom-bomb of a man, and the ‘gor’ and ‘bast’ sounds really expressed his nature.
There are rare times, of course, when names just come to me as if the character is almost introducing himself. I’m sure this happens to a lot of writers on occasion, but in fact, even though these names seem to come from nowhere, I’d wager they’re most often rooted in past experience or exposure to things that may only be subconsciously remembered. (Note: be careful that the name which apparently just popped into your head didn’t get subconsciously lifted from a story you read previously by someone else. A quick Google search should clear that one up in most cases. Not that I’m looking at anyone in particular… *cough*)
There’s not much more to tell, really. No magic secrets.
Search online lists of names that follow the conventions you’re working with. Mess with the spelling to match your world. Take notes whenever new names pop into your head. Search Google to make sure you haven’t inadvertently lifted them from someone else. Switch first, middle and last names around and see what jumps out at you. Lots of pencil and paper scribbling. Just put the work in.
There’s one last thing I think a writer should definitely NOT do once he has named a character and that character has come to life in the minds of readers:
Don’t explain the personal inspiration/reasons behind your selection of the name.
Just keep it to yourself. Don’t your characters (and even your writing process) deserve a little mystique anyway?
Maybe it’s just me. I’m the type of guy that hates to watch DVD extras. I don’t want to know how the film was made. Knowing it’s all a big trick defeats the original purpose of the movie, doesn’t it? To suspend my disbelief? I don’t want to see engineers building animatronic versions of a monster I need to believe in to enjoy the movie a second, third, fourth time. Too much knowledge can, in this rare case, be a bad thing. I do not want to know that Charles Xavier of the X-men was named after Stan Lee’s babysitter (he wasn’t – I just made that up).
Let Xavier be Xavier just because he is. Let me believe he had parents who simply liked the name. Don’t remind me that a writer chose it.
And with that, I’ll leave you to ponder the three reasons Lyandro Karras is called Lyandro Karras.
The first guest for next month, on the 1st, is another BL author, and one of my favourites, Graham McNeill. You can check out the full schedule in the link up top.
Posted on June 27, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged Black Library, Deathwatch, Debut Authors Guest, Guest Posts, Names, Names A New Perspective, Science Fiction, Space Opera, Steve Parker, The meaning of Names, Warhammer 40000. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.