NANP: On Choosing Names

Joining me today on the blog for Names: A New Perspective is one of 2013’s biggest debut authors, Jason M. Hough. Published by Del Rey Books/Random House, his Dire Earth Cycle trilogy is about a post-apocalyptic world brought on by the advent of an alien space elevator in Darwin, Australia in the near future. I’ve only read the first two books so far, The Darwin Elevator (review) and The Exodus Towers (review), but I have been impressed by both, and The Darwin Elevator even made my “Best Debuts of 2013” list. Both books are really good explorations of a human society that is struggling to survive in the face of a Resident Evil style viral epidemic and dwindling resources while at the same time also riven by the base natures of individuals who care only about power. I would recommend both books highly and will say that whatever Jason puts out next, I’ll definitely be reading it. In the meanwhile, while I figure out when to read the concluding novel in the trilogy, The Plague Forge, here’s what Jason has to say on the topic of names.

13 Darwin ElevatorOn Choosing Names

by Jason M. Hough

“No, no, no.  It’s spelled Raymond Luxury Yacht but it’s pronounced Throatwobbler Mangrove.” – Monty Python

No bones about it, names are tough.  As someone who has lived his entire life with a surname few pronounce correctly, I’m intimately familiar with the way a tricky name can fracture a conversation.  Introductions that stumble out of the gate are often unrecoverable.  Everyone’s embarrassed and flustered right from the get-go.  Worse, much worse, is when someone who has known me for years introduces me to a stranger and says “Hoag” or “Hugh” instead of “Huff”. Do I correct them, which implies they don’t know me well at all, or let the flub slide?

Many years ago I made it my policy to always correct.  Doing my part, you might say, to spread awareness of the proper way to pronounce Hough so that we might one day have a world where it is known to all.

The issues we run into with character’s names are similar.  Authors must strive to make their characters names memorable, distinct within the work, and easily pronounceable.  Each name carries a risk that it’s been used by someone else before, or belongs to a real world person who may have potential baggage.

A name encapsulates the character.  It is the talisman via which your readers will latch on to them.  Yes, personality and backstory and physical characteristics are the real meat, but all of those things are rolled into the name each time it is uttered, and so often the best names reflect the personality to whom they belong.

And yet I think there’s something to be said for not trying too hard, here.

Take the well-known superspy and master assassin, Peregrine Carruthers, agent 007.

Haven’t heard of him?  Here’s why.

James Bond.  Uttering that name conjures a very distinct image in most of our minds.  It’s simple, just two syllables, and strong.  Bond as a word implies strength and connection, even loyalty.  James is a bit lighter, smooth and acceptably British.  Yet both are commonplace.  If you can set aside all your pop-culture knowledge of the name for a moment, it’s easy to see how plain the name James Bond is.  Ian Fleming actually took the name from an American author of nonfiction books about birds.  It’s an unremarkable name, the type of name you could go undercover with and few would remember.  It’s actually a rather average name, made great by the character it encapsulates.

As Fleming said, “I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find, ‘James Bond’ was much better than something more interesting, like ‘Peregrine Carruthers’. Exotic things would happen to and around [James Bond], but he would be a neutral figure—an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.”

Fleming didn’t spend a lot of time trying to find the perfect name, one that screamed dashing superspy.  He simply saw this book on his shelf about Caribbean birds and pondered the name of the author, James Bond, and how dull it was.  How unnoticeable, as any good spy should be.

When I get too caught up in trying to pick the perfect name for a character, I think about James Bond.  I think about how that name tells you nothing of the person to whom it is attached, but it also doesn’t get in the way, either.  On its own it’s nothing, and yet in the end it fits the character like a perfectly tailored suit.

I also think about how we’re all born with our names.  They don’t define us.  We define them.  There’s something to be said for approaching character names the same way.


Jason M. Hough on Twitter, Facebook, and Web.

The next guest on the blog is Marianne de Pierres, and her post will go up this coming Thursday on the 16th. You can find the full schedule here.

Posted on January 13, 2014, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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