In a Name

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….

About Mary SanGiovanni

Author of the Hollower trilogy, Thrall, Chaos, For Emmy, Possessing Amy, The Fading Place, and more.
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6 Responses to In a Name

  1. Frances says:

    Names are an interesting thing indeed!

    I’m currently in the middle of a name change and the reaction I get from those who know me pre-change varies. Only a couple of people embrace it, those who have known me since childhood have rejected it, and the majority of people give me a look like they have been betrayed.

    Since I’ve changed my name it is like I’m a stranger to others. They still treat me like they always have but now a sense of unease is felt in the air. Maybe they see it as the destruction of identity and if a person can erase their sense of self then what else are the capable of?

    The name change has brought changes in myself. Subtle shifts in my personality but noticeable.

    So, with all of that being said. I believe that names DO hold power. Mystical power? Psychological power? I can’t say but something it there.


    • Ya know, I was wondering about that, actually, how name changes affect people. If it’s a name change that feels right to you (I guess the option is there but few people take it, to choose a name they feel best suits them), then it’s the right thing to do, IMO. But it’s interesting to see that people have such a wary reaction to it.

      “Maybe they see it as the destruction of identity and if a person can erase their sense of self then what else are the capable of?” — wow, good point. It’s as if they feel you’re exercising an ability to erase your sense of self.


  2. Doug Oldfield says:

    It’s crazy isn’t it? I always have such a hard time searching for that perfect name. Now that I’ve read your post I have even more to think about when searching for a name. Thanks a lot. ;o)


  3. My characters often change their names several times in the course of writing a novel. My novels often go nearly nameless until I am forced to pick something in order to tell other people it’s available. I, as a (presumably!) non-fiction entity, have had various names at different stages in my life; I can tell who met me when based on what they call me.

    Names are power, and they do define us.

    Can you imagine if Fitzgerald had decided to stick with “The High-Bouncing Lover” instead of “The Great Gatsby?”



    • Same here, re: nameless novels. And that’s an interesting point about changing names. I guess we not only go through various name changes of sorts, but title changes, too. There is a group of acquaintances who have never known me as “mother” or “writer,” and another group who have never known me as anything but.

      But I agree: Names are power.


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