NANP: Names and Games

Carrying on with the original concept behind Names: A New Perspective, today’s guest is 2013 debut author James K. Decker. His first book, The Burn Zone, is already out from Ace/Roc Books, and has been getting quite favourable reviews from what I’ve seen. I’m certainly excited to read it, given the setting and the subject matter and the protagonist. Looking forward to it! Here’s what James has to say on the topic of names.

Burn ZOneNames and Games

by James K. Decker

I’ve written before about the difficulty I sometimes have coming up with names for my characters and places.  When asked in an interview once what the hardest thing about writing was, I answered (to the interviewer’s surprise) that coming up with names was one of the hardest parts.  At first he thought I was having him on, but as I started to lay out the scope of it, he began to understand.  My novel The Burn Zone has four main characters, six or seven minor ones and a host of incidentals.  They all need names, in most cases first, and last.  The Burn Zone takes place in a city.  That means a name for the city itself, its districts, its shops, its streets…they add up.

In the past, I’ve gotten some good mileage out of browsing through company email contacts, or cobbling together names of people I meet.  The Burn Zone, which takes place in a sort of alternate reality China, presented a special challenge in regards to naming.  I decided my rule of thumb, naming-wise, would be that I wouldn’t use Mandarin words for things that had direct English translations – meaning, if I was referring to a hat, I’d call it a hat and not sprinkle in the Mandarin equivalent just because.  I stuck mostly to using Mandarin for proper names, and occasional slang terms which could be inferred from context.

I admit to having a diligent helper in my corner who speaks Mandarin to help me with all this, but she couldn’t name everything for me, she just vetted what I came up with.  I named my main character Xiao-Xing, and I wanted it to have a certain meaning.  While she is referred to by her nickname ‘Sam’ throughout the book (given by her ex-pat military father as a riff on ‘Surface to Air Missile’, a reference to the way she continually messes up the apartment), she is formally called Xiao-Xing.  I picked that name because it can mean ‘little star’ or ‘morning star’.  Sam is physically small, but she finds significant power inside of herself when she finds her back to the wall.  For her hacker friend, I opted to have him go by his online handle ‘Vamp’, though as the series goes on and he grows older he will revert to his given name.  For the alien haan who Sam meets and befriends during the events of The Burn Zone, I picked ‘Nix’.  I used it partly because I wanted all the male haan to use single syllable names out of custom, and it’s also an (admittedly obscure) reference to a creature in German mythology which takes human form but comes from underwater (the haan, as Sam learns, can breathe air but on their ship they breathe a type of ‘liquid air’ perfluorocarbon).  Sillith, the haan female, is a shout out to the ancient figure Lillith who (according to some) endlessly procreated demon offspring.  The huge city where the story takes place I chose to call Hangfei.  I admit there’s no real story behind that particular name.  I just liked it.  It felt to me like a Hangfei.  Sometimes that’s what it’s all about.

In writing this article, I actually began to notice how much I inject my fictional names with references I assume no one will get (and there’s no reason why they should – if I think anyone will notice I usually leave it out).  When I wrote the Revivors series under the name James Knapp (beginning with State of Decay), I did it with the technologically reanimated revivor soldiers.  They were given the designation ‘M8’ which was a gag on the Hebrew word ‘Emet’, inscribed on a golem in order to bring it to life.  Alternately, ‘Met’ means dead, and rubbing out the first part of the word to turn ‘Truth’ to ‘Dead’ is how one deactivates a golem.

Sometimes I pick names because they have meaning, or to be playful (a bad-ass character from Revivors was assigned the name ‘Calliope Flax’ by a computer when she was abandoned as a baby).  Other times, it’s just hard work.  I’ll still sift through the company directory in a pinch if I need a first name, last name, or both.  The company directory is where I found the last names ‘Hardman’ and ‘Quackenbush’.  I am still saving those names for a buddy cop story I will one day write called Hardman and Quackenbush where Lyle Hardman is the tough-as-nails loose cannon fighting a crippling Sweet Tart addiction, and Penn Quackenbush is an ex-CIA numerology expert who subdues suspects using a hybrid of drunken boxing and hot yoga.

Showtime is going to be all over that.  It’s all about the name.


James K. Decker on Twitter, Facebook, and Web.

The next guest is debut author Wesley Chu, and his post will go up on the 18th. You can find the full schedule in the link up top as usual.


Posted on March 14, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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