Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Names Are Destiny

Of course, one of the most obvious things names do is convey shades of character. Clearly a person named Mandy gives off an entirely different feel than one named Cassandra.

Not only can you have a lot of fun with this, you can let the names do some of the heavy lifting in terms of setting the tone. I do this a lot in the Theodosia books. It was especially fun naming the three governesses who bedevil Theo in Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris. They were short, walk on roles, so I didn’t have much space to dedicate to describing them, so I turned to their names to help set the tone of their personalities. One was unbearably repressive, another a tippling nervous wreck, and the last was a lovely looking woman, but with a vicious edge to her. The names I assigned them were Miss Chittle, Miss Sneath, and Miss Sharpe.

There is also a pompous lord named Lord Chudleigh, the chu being very reminiscent of chump.

For the Beastologist books, I wanted a family name with the venerable weight of generations and tradition behind it. But I didn’t want it to take itself too seriously, almost like an inside joke. My first choice was Dinwiddie. I’d seen that name on a billboard somewhere and fell in love with it. However, the Beastologist books are chapter books, so I needed a shorter name. I finally came up with Fludd. (Note how many of my favorite letters it has in there!) It’s short, not too common, and carries a slight sense of ridiculousness about it—especially when paired with the concept of veneration.

That’s actually something I do a lot—go far back in family history to understand where the names came from. For example, a mother who has an unusual name and hates it, will often give her daughter a more popular name. Someone who felt their name was too bland, will be inclined to give their child a more unique, individual name. Ethnic roots come into play here too, many people trying to tap into those as they name their children. Names in the 1950s were wildly different than the names we give our children now. But also the interests and focus of the family can effect names. A family of classical scholars might name their children Persephone and Augustus.

If you feel that approaching names this way feels too contrived, let me tell you that you couldn’t possibly make up the following names of REAL PEOPLE I’ve run into:

Mr. Swindle – a bank manager—no lie (and he's very upright and responsible!)
Dr. Kwacko – a doctor (Now tell me name’s aren’t destiny!)
A name I used in the Theodosia books, Fagenbush came from a kid in one of my kid’s classes back in elementary school.

Here’s an exercise I do in workshops that can be a lot of fun. Name the four following people, trying to have their names convey the attributes assigned to them:
A firm-but-fair female principal
The old, musty smelling math teacher
The boy who plays the tuba in the high school band
The girl who has been home schooled and feels socially awkward on her first day of school

Don’t forget that names aren’t limited to people. You can bring the same wealth of texture to your setting with the place names that you choose. But I’ll talk about that next week when I talk about setting



I love visiting cemeteries for names - like the indoor mausoleum getup I went to in San Diego for a funeral, where everyone has his or her own, um, drawer in the wall, for lack of better description. Very old school, and the names were mostly from the 1920s and 30s - many many names not often used now...Dolores, Doris, Eugenia, Agnes, Norbert, Gerald...
~Thalia Chaltas