The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games….
With apologies to T.S. Eliot, the naming of characters is no less a holiday game. It’s been on my mind lately, as I poke and prod this story that is probably a play, but may yet turn into a novel. So far, I know four characters well enough to chat at a party. Like Topsy, they just growed…names and all.
While the vaguest outlines of story have been rattling around for nearly a year and a half, I’ve only spent the last few days concertedly sketching at the whiteboards. Even so, it seems inconceivable that these characters could be named anything but what they are.
That said, I’m not quite sure where my characters’ names come from. For me, character creation is like watching an image develop in an old Polaroid snapshot. Bits and glimpses, until suddenly, the whole picture jumps out at you. The names are a part of that inexorable development. Usually, I get the first letter. Charlotte started that way in HEARTSTEALER. She could’ve been a Caroline and I thought she might be a Catherine, but I could hear that those initial sounds weren’t quite right.
So you sit. And listen. And wait for the Polaroid to develop a little further.
Because, you see, eventually I can start to hear the cadence of the name. How many syllables; where the stress falls. In SING TO THE BONES, I knew Raiepe started with an R. And I could hear the music, the waltz-like stress on the first syllable: RYE-ay-pay.
In both cases, it’s really just transcribing what I hear: what names have those sounds and those stresses? It was a little easier in HEARTSTEALER, using real-world names, but it’s worked out more-or-less the same for names of my own invention, too. I do try to keep consistent sound laws in my secondary-world languages (and sometimes nerd out about those sound laws just a bit too much).
So you sit and wait, and sometimes the Polaroid develops even more—you might get corrected on spelling. Cody becomes Codie; Neve becomes Nieve. Changes like these don’t affect pronunciation, but I think the way the name looks on the page is just as important as the way it sounds. That’s why I preferred Mairi to Mari, and why Caitlin looks so strange to me, as compared to Kaitlin.
(Sidebar; my name is Katie, most definitely.)
Of course, sometimes names strike like a bolt from the blue, and then the rest of the character’s details emerge around them. Little-known fact: very, very early ponderings on HEARTSTEALER had it as a science-fiction Wizard-of-Oz retelling aboard a space station. All I had at that point were names: Findley and Sara. And again, “Sara,” not “Sarah.”
And sometimes, you sit and wait long enough that you no longer remember how the Polaroid started developing. Much like your own name, it’s just always been that way, and it doesn’t seem like it could ever be otherwise. Where did Ned get his name? Beats me.
It’s worth throwing in two caveats, though.
One: for walk-on characters, I don’t wait for any Polaroids. I keep a list of names that make sense for the relevant culture/language, and grab the one that fits best.
Two: waiting for developing Polaroids maybe sounds more passive than I mean it. True, it takes patience, and it’s not something you can force, but you need to be actively looking, probing, and trying to make sense of the mist. Character names may emerge, but you have to be listening very carefully, or you won’t hear them.
What about you lot? How do names come to you—for characters, children, cats, pet rocks?
What I’m Listening to This Week:
I’ve always had a soft spot for Romantics of all stripes. This week, I’ve been re-listening to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Specifically, the 5th movement – “Songe d’une nuit du sabbat,” or Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath.
A lot’s been written about the imagery here: basically, our protagonist of this symphony sees himself at “…a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral.” Super plaintive and haunting. His beloved shows up as a repeating phrase – the idee fixe – around 1:18, but warped and twisted into something frankly ugly.
One of my favourite bits? The funereal knells about three minutes in, followed by judicious quoting of the Dies Irae at 3:15 (don’t worry, everyone does it; not just Berlioz). By the third repetition, it sounds like a monster stirring. This is a piece where the more you listen, the more you see as well as hear.