The Power of Names

Names have power.  This is something that seems to have diminished in importance in our modern world, fading from our consciousness.  And yet, names still hold some of their ancient power.  Parents spend months choosing “the perfect name” for their new baby, we observe pets for certain idiosyncratic behaviors that will tell us the best name for them (or they exhibit traits associated with the name we choose), and teens agonize over the screen name that will best reflect their “true self.”

In ancient times, names held the power to control.  To know the innermost, “true” name of a thing was to have ultimate power over that thing.  Wizards were keepers of names and the more true names they knew, the more powerful they were.  Giving someone your true name was the ultimate sign of trust, giving that person power over you…if they so chose.  While we do not attach the same beliefs or significance to names anymore, there is still something mystical about choosing a name.

With such care given to choosing names for pets, children, and online personas, it stands to reason that the same care should be given when choosing names for one’s characters.  After all, are they not the children of our minds, our hidden desires and idealized personas given flesh?  Many authors have said that their characters do not feel real or alive until they have been given the perfect name.

Whenever I name characters, I always look to meaning first.  I always try to find names, both first and last, that reflect something important about that character.  Sometimes it’s an obvious personality trait, sometimes it’s the purpose or role that person fulfills in the group or over the course of the story, and sometimes I just fall across a name that “just fits” that character without giving any obvious explanation why.  Some characters even tell me what their names are and refuse to change them.

I try not to name the name choice too obvious because then it feels forced.  For example, in Elrond Hubbard’s amazingly awful opus Battlefield Earth, the main character is called “Johnny Goodboy.”  (Seriously.)  First, it’s not very imaginative, and second, it renders the character very flat.  His name isn’t interesting; it doesn’t hold any mystery or ambiguity about his character or role in the story.  Remember, names have power.  In contrast, I named one of my protagonists in Astral Rain “Irene Merritt.”  Both names are of English origin and sound reasonable for a parent to name a child.  Irene sounds just exotic enough to be interesting without entering the realm of the absurd.  But, below that are the meanings of both those names.  “Irene” means “peace” and “Merritt” means “boundary gate.”  Both meanings are key to her role within her group of friends and within the story itself.  Plus, the name “Irene” has a personal connotation for me, since I associate it with the moon and magic after watching The Princess and the Goblin when I was a child.  In that story, the main character is a young princess named Irene.

It’s actually harder to come up with names for antagonists than it is for protagonists because you don’t want to come up with a stereotypical bad-guy-sounding name.  Remember, all of your characters, including the bad guys, started out as normal people.  Parents don’t usually think (or want) their children to become psychopathic mass murders with delusions of world domination when they grow up.  That’s why it is very hard to find names with negative sounds or meanings when you look at baby name books or browse through one of my favorite websites Behindthename.com.

This is where I draw on dictionaries of foreign languages.  A lot of my fan fiction characters have names that are just Japanese words with a capital letter to make it a proper name.  This would be a little weird to a Japanese reader (remember the overly-literal translation of  the name “Ahiru” to “Duck” for the main character in Princess Tutu?), but for English speakers it sounds like a viable name.  I do the same thing with antagonist names. For example, the antagonist of Astral Rain is called Sharivar.  This is actually an Iranian word for “desirable power.”  It sounds like a reasonable name for a child (who would not want their child to be strong or a charismatic leader?), but has a darker hint beneath it.  Plus, it sounds really cool.  You can even combine words and names to make completely new names.  The title of my story Rinamathair comes from combining the Jewish name “Rina” meaning “joy” with the Celtic word “mathair” meaning “mother.”  Literally, “Rinamathair” means “joy-mother,” or “joy of the mother.”

Sometimes names just come to you.  Matthias Kobor from Astral Rain refused to have his name changed.  I had a say on his last name (which is Hungarian for “wanderer”) but his first name he stubbornly persisted in staying Matthias.  That’s fine with me because the sound and feel of the name just fits him.  As for Mariner Sequence, when I had the initial dream that sparked the story, Ryn stepped up and told me that her name was Ryn, she was 26 years old and a warrior-assassin with black hair, grey eyes, the ability to turn invisible, and she had a crazy 20-year-old sister with pink hair and green eyes named Marella who wore bells on her ankles and could run at insane speeds.  Those basic specs have not changed for either of those characters since their conception, complete with the spellings.  “Ryn” is actually a Japanese name that means “cold,” although the spelling is different (Rin vs. Ryn).  I think the “y” snuck in to show the more Celtic influence and to separate my Ryn from the little girl Rin who follows Sesshomaru around in the anime Inuyasha.  (Aside from having black hair and following a man with white hair, these two Rin’s have nothing in common.)  I know that Marella is a real name since there is a writer called Marella Sands, but I have yet to find a meaning for it.  Either way, the name feels right for her and I can’t imagine changing it.

Please note that when you are creating new names or fragments of a language and even choosing names, you need to have a sense of coherency.  Different races, different people, different worlds, will have different feels and dialects.  In Rinamathair, I pull from Celtic words and names so the setting has a very Celtic feel.  Even if the words or names I pick aren’t Celtic themselves, the need to feel or sound Celtic to maintain the illusion.  In Mariner Sequence, I draw heavily on Finnish words with a smattering of modified Japanese since Japanese and Finnish sound a lot alike.  Vuorien words, names, and titles draw on Finnish and Japanese while the Mariners pull from English, some Celtic, and even Latin names with modified Japanese words for their magic spells.  Some words I pull specifically for their meanings while others I chose because they sound like they fit.  For example, the name “Vuorien” actually came from listening to a song called “Vuorien Taa” by the Finnish band Indica.  I later learned that “vuorien” means “mountains,” but at the time, it sounded like a neat name for a race.  I broke the word into two new words: “vuor” meaning “first” or “forerunner” and “rien” meaning people.  I also incorporated “taa” to mean “of the” or “from.”  So now, whenever the Vuorien speak of a different race, they add “rien” to the end to indicate that these are a different race.  The Mariners are referred to as “Valtarien” or “people of the sea” from the Finnish word “valtameri” meaning “ocean” combined with my new meanings for “taa” and “rien.”  Maybe I’m just a geek, but I like dabbling in linguistics like this, crafting new meaning from preexisting words.  I try to stick as close to the true meanings of the words as I can while maintaining the integrity of the whole.  Using real names and words anchors the language in reality while the modifications give it the exotic or alien flavor it needs to stand apart.

A final word on names:  make sure they are pronounceable.  Most readers “hear” the words in their mind as they read, even if they are reading silently.  Creating names or words that are hard to pronounce disrupts their reading experience and makes them pause to try to figure out a pronunciation.  I always include a pronunciation guide, just in case, but your readers should be able to read your names without difficulty.  I am one of those few readers who does not “hear” words as I read, which makes me more forgiving with hard-to-pronounce names.  Still, if I run across a name or word that is too absurd, then I get annoyed that the writer didn’t take the time to make sure their world was reasonable and realistic.  One or two such unpronounceable names I can forgive if the character owning them makes only a brief appearance, but an entire cast of such gobbley-gook drives me up the wall.  (And if it annoys ME, readers who do hear the words and names probably hurled the book across the room and found something more palatable to read.)

Names anchor us in reality.  They give insight into our character, our background, our origins and associations.  Names have power.  Language has power.  Do not abuse it.

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