If you've ever read this blog before, you know I love names. Today Anne Ursu gives us a peak into the story behind her characters magical monikers for her Middle Grade novel, Breadcrumbs.
When I set out to do a modern-day retelling of “The Snow Queen,” I realized pretty quickly I was going to have to come up with some new character names. While the original fairy tale’s Gerda and Kai might be perfectly at home gallivanting around nineteenth century Spitsbergen, they did not belong on the playground of a Minneapolis elementary school. And Anderson’s Gerda and Kai liked to kiss rose petals while holding hands and staring reverently at the sky. My characters were going to have snowball fights and play superhero baseball. They needed different names.
I wanted the characters to have names that felt contemporary but still had a fairy tale resonance to them. So I did the writerly thing and spent half a day on the Internet looking at name sites—which is a perfect way to spend hours browsing the Internet and still call it work. I liked "Hazel" when I saw it—it’s the sort of name that might feel plain to the person who wears it, but people who knew better would see that there’s magic in it. And then "Jack"—a fairy-tale name, too, and a good solid boy name, the sort the kid who lives next door might have. I didn’t devote as much time to careful procrastination research for the rest of the contemporary characters—though the two fifth grade teachers at Hazel and Jack’s school are Mrs. Jacobs and Mr. Williams, after the Grimm brothers. This is the sort of thing that amuses no one but me.
The real difficulty was the Snow Queen herself. I didn’t want to call her “The Snow Queen”— I didn’t want her to be exactly the villain from Anderson, and I wanted her to seem a little more mysterious and malefic than that name sounded. But I couldn’t figure out what. And the naming sites were going to be no help. I didn’t want her to have a name name at all. That would imply that she was a person with a specific back story, that at some point she was a child who had a mother who named her. I wanted my Snow Queen to be unearthly, a half-presence that had always been there and always would be, more a specter than anything else.
I used “the white witch” as a placeholder in the first draft—because that's what she was. It fit her perfectly, this wraith-like woman with eyes of ice and skin of snow who with one glance causes you to become overwhelmed with cold, dread, and terrible longing. I didn’t capitalize it, because it wasn’t her title, really—just the words people used to try to grasp at her. But of course it’s the White Witch who lures Edmund away on a sled in Narnia. I kept trying to come up with other names, but nothing else worked. I wrote Laura Ruby, my writer friend whose many official functions include holding my hand while I anxious my way through drafts. “I don’t know what to call her,” I whined. "‘The white witch’ is perfect, but of course I can’t do that.” Laura responded, “Why the hell not?”
I couldn't argue with that.
So, the white witch she stayed. I like the Narnia resonance, and anyway Jadis, the White Witch of Narnia, is based on Andersen’s Snow Queen, who was the first woman dressed in white furs to lure a boy away on a sled on a snowy day.
And I love that she exists across these stories, a mythic figure like the bogeyman, this nameless shadow in white furs who drives her sleigh from one story to the next, luring us into the cold with promises of Turkish Delight and false comfort, then disappearing into the snow until the next incarnation.
But I didn’t really have a choice, anyway. This is what the character needed to be called, and she wouldn’t accept anything else. Writers work so hard on names—paging through baby books, studying naming sites on the Internet, thinking about references and connotations and resonances. And sometimes it just doesn't matter. Sometimes our characters tell us who they are, and then smile wickedly and offer us some Turkish Delight.
All we can do is accept.
Even through this post you can see just how gifted a storyteller Ursu is, and how wonderful her newest book will be. Go pick up a copy, or become a follower and leave a comment with your GFC name, and e-mail address to be entered to win Breadcrumbs!