Having yet another hell of a time coming up with titles for the novel and novella I’m working on, and it got me thinking about names in general. They’re pretty crucial, if you think about it. A name is your tag, your identifier, your permanent audio print on other human beings. It’s your calling card. It’s the first piece of your identity. And usually, whatever it is, you’re stuck with it for life.
It’s like that with fictitious people, too. Only difference is, you bring your personal experiences and assumptions into naming characters (or, as a reader, into forming them in your heads). It’s not like with a baby, who is a blank slate capable of crafting a distinct association for others with his or her name. Characters’ names mold with their person, rather than the other way around. At least, that’s how it works for my characters. They are who they are. Their names are chosen to reflect that, or challenge it.
I guess that’s not totally accurate. When a character develops fully for me — and I mean breathingly real to me — I already know his or her name. It belongs with the character as if it has been there all along. Still, that name must mean a thing to me on a subconscious level; I suppose it must possess some quality that I can associate with it.
It makes me wonder, though, how much the story might change if the names really were changed. To protect ourselves.
My sister is pregnant — she and her husband are expecting their first — and they’re going through the trying process of finding the perfect name. It’s a lot of pressure, you know, choosing the name that some little person who you’ve never met is going to carry his or her whole life — possibly long after you’re gone. Sort of a weird bigger-than-you kind of thing, if you think about it. I think parents chose names they know they can love. Names of family members, dear friends, even heroes. They choose names for which there are good memories and good associations. Maybe it’s some kind of unspoken belief in the power of spoken words, that good names will bring good things to the bearers of those names.
Maybe it’s all random. I don’t know. Maybe a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But as a writer, a user of words (names being a small part of that set), I just can’t get behind that.
Maybe that’s why I have so much trouble with titles. With names in general, really. Maybe I’m trying to protect even fictional people from…me. Does that even make sense? What could that possibly accomplish, except to stall me from completing works that could deliver a very badly needed paycheck? Is there a name for that feeling? If not, there should be.
Sometimes, I feel like I am so steeped in the writing world that it’s all I know. And then there are days when I really don’t understand how it all works. How I work. It’s weird. I think writers carry guilt about what they write sometimes. And I think that’s because we know on some level that those characters we’re writing about are not entirely fictional people. They are real people with real feelings, and all the difference between the world knowing and not knowing is sometimes, simply, in a name. A real name. A name that carries weight. A name that can be damaged, in real life or in the obsessive superstitious place in our heads, by all the words we can fling at it. All the very real evils which we disguise with other names, too.
It’s easy to come up with names for hate. Or indifference. They are legion.
Legacies are another story.
I know that what’s in a name for me is a booksworth of feelings, of memories, of life lived with and without the person the name reminds me of. And since I write horror, it’s next to never-gonna-happen that the people I love most will ever be immortalized with a namesake in a novel or story. Call THAT some kind of word magic if you want, some kind of talisman action, maybe. Some belief that I can protect others by guarding their names from all the monsters growling and slithering and tearing their way into my worlds.
Worlds which are growing more unstable every day….