22 February 2014

What’s in a name? Sometimes, everything. (Updated)

[Note: This blog post originally appeared as a guest post on The Bitter Blog by Author Kate Bitters.]

As a kid, I never liked my name. It was too easy for other kids to deliberately mispronounce just to tease me. So once I started writing stories, I thought up several pen names to replace the name my parents had foisted upon me. However, I gave up eventually, deciding I needed to use my real name so family and friends would believe I actually wrote the books.

But the subject of names continues to impact my life, especially my writing life, and as writers know, names are important. After all, Adam was tasked with naming the flora and fauna of the Garden of Eden, and with each pronouncement, it became real. Each time we cast a label on something, we could be said to name it. And naming creates powerful associations. Our characters’ names are no different.

Perhaps not every character fiddles with his or her name; thank goodness they seldom complain. I imagine, however, that characters do what real people do, and fiddling with and changing and using just the right name is important to a lot of us. Sometimes a name is actually a crucial element of a story character's psyche, motivation, or raison-d'être.

For example, in my forthcoming novel A BEAUTIFUL CHILL, the heroine, Íris, is from Iceland and the correct Icelandic pronunciation of her name matters to her. As it turns out, her name is about all she has that is truly hers, so she firmly corrects anyone who says her name with the English pronunciation; her friends know how to say it and by that quirk she marks them as friends. “My name is Íris. Like the letter E,” she scolds the male protagonist early on. It is literally a defining moment for her: Get my name right, or we’ll have nothing to do with each other.

In another example, the young man in THE DREAM LAND trilogy who takes over from our hero is named Chucker. It's a nickname used by his mother since he was a little boy, and since he is searching for her on another world, it has meaning to him.

“What do they call you in school? Is it Chuck or Charlie?”
“Chucker is what they call me—but I hate that name. Mom was crazy naming me that. Chuck R. Tucker. The ‘R’ stands for René. Sissy name, ain’t it? That was her dad’s name. Her name was Tucker, and after she got married it was McElroy. Then she changed it back to Tucker. My dad’s name is Chuck. That’s what Grandma said. So everybody calls me Chucker Tucker—ya know, like Chuck R. Tucker?”

[See below for more on naming "alien" characters in THE DREAM LAND trilogy.]

And in the ultimate example, Alex Parris is in love with everything about the Trojan War in AFTER ILIUM. In fact, when he meets an older woman named Elena on a cruise ship bound for Turkey, where he will tour the ruins of Ilium, he cannot help but imagine himself as young Paris carrying off his prized Helen to the storied walls of Ilium. That name association is the start of a whole lot of trouble for Alex.

So let me suggest, when you select a character’s name—whether it’s some common Anglo-Saxon name, a Biblical name, or something Chinese, Indian, or Slavic, perhaps—keep in mind the associations the name itself may have. Think about how the character carries his or her name. How picky is your character about how the name is used? Also, what nicknames may ensue. How do they react to other people using or misusing their names? Names become another element, another layer, of a character’s identity.

Because what is a name but a marker of identity, a proof of existence, and for a fictional persona brought magically to life in the pages of a story, existence is everything.

My fellow Myrddin author, Connie J. Jasperson, has a lovely blog post about naming characters, too--which prompted me to repost mine again but with the following update.

In the trilogy THE DREAM LAND, part of the story is set on another world called Ghoupallesz by the dominant ethnic group. Faced with "people" of another culture, I invented a system for names early on. This went part and parcel with inventing the language they would use, including a complete lexicon and a complex grammar. Granted, this is not a fun project for most people, only a little better for science fiction authors, but a pure heavenly delight for Yours Truly. After all, I have some background in the structure of language, having studied linguistics to the edge of madness. But I digress....

Generally, I followed these rules:

1. Male names end with consonants (ostensibly because they are tough) and female names always end with a vowel (again, because the culture perceives females as untough). I'm sure to get complaints about this stereotyping, but I am not depicting a perfect or ideal society so much as I am depicting a society where stereotyping also exists. In my favor, however, the "untough" females demonstrate time and time again how tough they can be.

So the common Gotankan name Latol (male) and Latola (female) or Metour and Metoura are good examples. Not every name has a male and female equivalent; some are only male and some are only female, for example: Dassex is only male and Gouo (pronounced "Goo-oh") is only female.

As for the names themselves, I followed the rule of "no more than 2 consonant phonemes in a row." And I use diphthongs liberally (i.e., two vowel sounds that are merged, as in the o and u of Metour). Author's insider tip: The names were created purely by how they sound: Sam, a common easy-going name, becomes Samot; Aaron becomes Aroun; and Aisa (pronounced "EYE-za") is merely a misspelling of Asia. By the way, Metour is, in my head, the equivalent of Michael, for anyone who is counting.

2. I also used derivatives. That is, the formal name and its likely short forms. For example, the common southern Sekuatean female name Sitsou is often shortened to Soso. (Tolstoy and all Russian authors would appreciate this feature; their novels also use a long list of name variations.) 

One major character in Book II is from the ethnic group Danid and her formal name would be Abarasa. At one point, she explains to her lover about names, different names for different situations (and the whole point of doing this as an author is simply to give it all a more realistic feel--because we do the same thing in our own language):

“My name is Basura,” she replied. “Because you are my intimate friend, you may call me Basii from now on. After we copulate you may call me Bai when we are alone.”

3. Family names were generally taken from places of origin or primary ancestral traits, just as we do/did with English names. For example, Smith comes from the occupation blacksmith.

Our hero's sidekick, Aroun-de-Sotos takes his name from his place of origin: The South. And the Sekuatean generals Tatandellus and Brounadar also take their family names from where their families originated.

4. A common pattern of name structure must be adhered to in order to approximate realism. In other words, just as Johnson and Jackson both use -son to indicate the father's name has become a surname, I also used a similar "clue" in naming names.

In Book III, our heroine meets a Jepolissan man, a fellow scientist named Vazak-Mixorran. In that culture, males have given names of two syllables. Later she meets one of his polyamorous ex-wives, Zif-Exorran. Females have given names of a single syllable. But notice the similarity of the endings of their family names: -orran. The explanation is simple: -orran means 'offspring of' --thus, Vazak's female parent was Mix while Zif's female parent was Ex. In Jepolissan culture surnames are based on the mother's name, not the father's--which would make sense where polyamory was common: children would know their mother better than their father.

Similarly, the Ghoupalle naming custom follows this protocol: The first-born child receives the surname of the father. The surname given to each subsequent child, regardless of sex, alternates between father's and mother's surnames. 

Therefore, the first-born child of our hero, Set-d'Elous and his wife Zaura-Matousz, is Aisa-d'Elous, a daughter. The children who followed in their lifetime together were: Set-Matousz (male), Basha-d'Elous (female), Dunas-Matousz (male), and Seaso-d'Elous (female). The exception is when Zaura thinks her husband is dead and marries another man and has a son named Samot-Fredin (male), taking the surname of the new husband--who soon dies, poor chap. Discovering Set-d'Elous alive and returned to her, they resumed having children, picking up the naming protocol where they left off.

5. Following the custom (which I invented, albeit with some assistance from a tiny muse perched in my ear), the given name is joined by a hyphen to the family name. Thus: Set-d'Elous --literally, Set the Great. This is explained in our hero's journal entry in Book I:

           39th cavalry regiment and Yours Truly singled out for special awards; given distinguished title of “d’Elous” (the Great). They’re joking but I like it, think I’ll keep it. New name on Ghoupallesz: Set-d’Elous. 

Author's insider tip: d'Elous is a corruption of the word 'illustrious'--redrafted as 'great'!

And so you can easily see how much joy can be found among linguistic conventions of naming practices. There are, of course, only 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week, but surely some of those can be occupied pleasantly enough in the invention of alien customs. Give it a try. I strongly recommend it.

To check it all out for yourself, I welcome you to read THE DREAM LAND trilogy in either paperback or on Kindle. (Click the links in the upper-right corner of this blog.)

(C) Copyright 2010-2014 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. Stephen - I was always curious as to how you derived your names for all your wonderful characters. You are correct that the name is integral to how a character is perceived, and how they perceive themselves. This is a great post, thank you for the update and thank you so much for the honorable mention!

    1. It's an imperfect system, but it seems to work.

  2. lol you always thinking of wierd things.