NANP: Names In Context

Another’s week here on Names: A New Perspective, and today’s guest is E. J. Swift, author of the post-apocalyptic Osiris, released by Night Shade Books last year. Osiris was quite a fun novel (my review), notable for the fact that it was set in a world where extreme climate changes have forced the survivors to all live in one crowded city and one of the protagonists is Indian, among other things. Any book that goes for ethnic diversity in its characters should always be applauded I feel, especially when it doesn’t come across as contrived. While you rush off to your favourite bookseller to buy a copy of the book, here’s what E. J. has to say on the topic of names.

Osiris_wraparound_Corrected03.inddNames In Context

by E. J. Swift

The first thing you learn about a character is often their name. Names can evoke personality, culture, reputation (think: Lannisters), status, an era in time or a literal translation. In addition, every reader brings to that name their own context, in terms of personal experience and cultural references. Names are synonymous with identity; whether we wish them to be or not. They are signifiers and codes, and they are usually the first information we offer up in introductions – in person and online – be it our real name or an assumed alias. The idea that names can wield immense power is one as old as time and a prevalent theme in speculative fiction – Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea books are an example which immediately springs to mind.

All of these are things that writers can play with when naming characters. In Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, for example, the central character’s name is Aomame, which means ‘green peas’. The translation is openly addressed by the author, and reflection on her own name becomes a feature of Aomame’s character and behaviour.

At the other end of the scale, in Lydia Millet’s How The Dead Dream (to cite something I’ve just read), the protagonist is known as T., giving the reader the absolute minimum, and in some novels, you never get a name at all. Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body is a wonderful example of where lack of name obscures even the narrator’s gender.

In the first novel I ever wrote, I deliberately chose names with meanings pertinent to their particular character arc. The central character was called Luella, or Lucy, meaning light (she had a typical quest narrative). Another character was called Gilda, meaning sacrifice. However, when writing my novel Osiris, I was more concerned with the aesthetic appearance and sound of the names than with the meaning. I love discovering the etymology of a name, but at the same time it has to sound right for the character.

I have two central characters in Osiris. Adelaide Rechnov (also known as Adelaide Mystik, a name she chooses to use for herself, not entirely ironically) and Vikram Bai (again, Bai is a name Vikram chooses for himself, having never known his family). Adelaide’s Russian ancestry is reflected in the family names: Feodor, Linus (pronounced with an ‘ee’ sound) and Dmitri. The twins, Adelaide and Axel, are the youngest of the Rechnovs, and their names are more representative of the younger Osirian generation, who often have names with a Scandinavian lilt, such as Jannike, Nils, and Pekko. Although the physical location of the city of Osiris is at the other end of the world, I wanted the Scandinavian spellings to evoke a wintery climate.

I don’t always find the right name for my characters straight away. I settled on Vikram early on and it always felt right for him. He needed a strong name, but one that could be shortened to something more casual amongst his friends. I also wanted a name that suggested his Indian ethnicity, without having to specifically state it. At one stage, I considered changing Adelaide to Astrid, which is another name I really love, and would have fitted nicely with Axel. In the end I decided against it. The syllables in Astrid are hard. It’s a very strong name, and Adelaide was already a spiky, arrogant character. I needed her name to feel a little softer. The three-syllable name worked better alongside both Vikram and Axel. Adelaide also has an old-fashioned feel, which suited the retro-futuristic tone I wanted to cultivate throughout the whole novel.


E. J. Swift on Twitter, Facebook, and Web.

The next guest on the blog is 2013 debut author Amy McCulloch, and her post will go up this Thursday on the 13th. You can find the full schedule in the link up top.

Note: Night Shade Books is currently being reformed as an imprint under Skyhorse Publishing, who’ve bought the company in alliance with Start Publishing (Skyhorse will handle the print distribution and Start the digital, as best as I can tell). I’m not sure how that affects sales of Osiris and other Night Shade titles, especially when it comes to print, but this novel is also available from Del Rey UK, so that might be an option for those who are interested. I certainly encourage you to check the novel out.

Posted on June 10, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Shaven Wookiee and commented:
    The latest in the brilliant series!


  1. Pingback: Monthly Report: June and July 2013 | Shadowhawk's Shade

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