Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Character of Names by Bree Despain

What’s in a name?

Sometimes a name comes along with a character—it’s just there and it fits perfectly. Maybe the name even comes first and a character is created around it. Other times, finding the right name can feel painstaking and require a lot of thought and research. But finding just the right name can be a great tool for creating resonance in a story.

I’ve mentioned resonance a couple of times in earlier blog tour posts—the act of drawing out power by repeating that which has come before—and the three main ways of using it: resonating with stories that have come before, resonating with real world/life experiences, and creating resonance within your own story through the use of parallels and motifs. Choosing character names, either through how they sound or their meaning, is an easy way to draw resonance from other stories or the real world—they can even be used as symbols that work with a repeating motif in your own story.

Take The Hunger Games for example. Katniss may sound like an odd name for the heroine but as we learn in the book, she is named after a plant with nourishing roots, and as her father once told her, “as long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve.” The Katniss plant is also called “arrowhead”—a nod to Katniss’s ability as an archer. Through Katniss’s name, we learn that she is a scavenger, a hunter, and a survivor; trying to bring nourishment to the people she loves. The name Peeta is also significant in that it sounds like “pita”—a humble kind of bread. This is fitting, as he is the son of a baker and often referred to as “the boy with the bread” because it was his gift of burned loaves that saved Katniss’s life after her father’s death. I’ve always been Team Peeta because in a book where the motif of bread is repeatedly used to symbolize life, Peeta is the one who gives life to Katniss.

In my new book, The Shadow Prince, I also tried to create resonance through name choice. Daphne is a character who is based both on the Greek mythological characters of Persephone and Orpheus. When thinking of these two names, I realized the one thing they had in common was the “ph” so I started looking for names that also had that combination. In an early draft, I used the name “Stephanie” but found that it was lacking a certain gravitas. I started looking at other names containing the “ph” sound, and soon came across “Daphne.” 

However, I choose Daphne not only because of the sound of the name, but ultimately because of the the significance of that name in Greek mythology. In ancient myth, Daphne was a nymph who, while being pursued by love-struck Apollo, prayed to her father to be transformed into a laurel tree rather than be overtaken by her suitor. Considering my own character was a girl who has no interest in being taken by the Underlord who is pursuing her, the name of Daphne seemed very fitting. It tells the reader (most likely subconsciously) that she will not be an easy catch for Haden.

Resonance can also work against you when deciding on a name for a character. Did you know that in an early, unpublished draft of The Lord of the Rings Aragorn originally went by the nickname Trotter? (Named for the sound his wooden shoes—or possibly wooden feet—made against the cobblestones.) However, Tolkien’s publisher noted that people may not take a character with that name seriously, and in later drafts, the character was remade into Strider—a much more powerful and dangerous sounding nickname.

I had this same problem when coming up for a name for Haden, my disgraced Underrealm prince and warrior. The name that came immediately to me was indeed “Haden Lord” because it sounded like Hades, the character he was inspired by, and invoked the idea that he was of royal birth. However, I worried that the name was too easy, or a little too on the nose, and I ended up spending over a month researching and contemplating alternate names. I had a list of about fifty names and crossed them off for various reasons. Eventually, I landed on the name Devlin, because it sounded a little bit like “Devil,” hopefully invoking the idea that the character was from the Underworld. 

However, after changing Haden’s name to Devlin in the first few chapters, I found that the name didn’t work for the character because it had too much of a feminine sounding ring to it. The name actually changed how I viewed the character physically in those scenes. So I went back to my long list of names and after much more consideration, I decided to go with the very first name that had come to me even before the character had been fully formed in my head: Haden. 

The name had the right ring, invoked the right image, and resonated just right with the inspiration for the story. Haden might sound like an easy name for the character, however deciding on it was anything but!

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