Here’s a question for you, Dear Reader. What publisher would have taken Bram Stoker seriously if his villain had swept onto the page and said, in sepulchral tones, “I am Count Humperdink. I want to drink your blood”? I am tempted to think that the Count’s intended victim might have died of extreme mirth, thereby depriving the big bat of a square meal. The same name, though, seems strangely appropriate for the arch-villain of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.
Names are an important element in fiction. From the title of the story, to the characters’ names, to place names, to object handles—these tricky nouns help create the environment in which the reader lives while reading the story.
In this two-part series on names, I aim to address exactly those issues. Part 1 is about titling your stories and naming your characters. Part 2 covers other items you might need to name, such as the places your stories happen in and the objects they contain.
Story and Book Titles
It’s said that first impressions linger. The title informs the readers’ first impression of a story and can color the attitude with which they enter the tale. In fact, the title can determine if they read the story at all.
I critiqued a manuscript in a writers’ workshop that was ready to publish, but I and another panelist (an editor) warned that the story might get left in the slush pile at some magazines because the title was hokey: “Aliens in Your Garage!” The author was going for a National Enquirer-style headline, but the story departed from the tone of the title from the first word on and struck the editor as clichéd: “Yeah, yeah. The aliens are already here. So what? Big deal.”
When choosing a title for a story, I generally avoid names that do the following things:
- Give away the farm. I want the title of a story to draw readers in by revealing a tantalizing glimpse of the world within—without giving an unobstructed view of the interior. What should the reader expect from a story entitled “Doomed” or “Man Without a Head”?
- Get down and get literal. Both of the above titles also meet this criterion. Here’s another: “People Who Didn’t Know They Were Dead.”
- Don’t work with the tone or substance of the story. “Forever Friends” sounds like a nice little story about a couple of kids growing up together, then going their separate ways, right? It’s not. It’s a complex saga of space conquest with rip-roaring action, romance, betrayal, loyalty, and a dire need for a better title.
Some writers hate having to title stories. If you’re one of them, here’s the good and bad news. The title you chose may not be the title the book ends up with. The final decision on this lies with your publisher.
I sent my first Gina Miyoko mystery to Pegasus with the title: Tinkerbell and the Fourth God from the Left. This is a reference to the protagonist’s nickname and a key element in the plot. I’d envisioned an entire series of Tinkerbell novels with Tinkerbell and titles. But my editor pointed out that naming the book after an existing fictional character from an iconic children’s book might confuse readers. It was also an awful lot to put on a book cover. The story went to press with the more manageable The Antiquities Hunter.
Naming Characters: What’s in a Name?
Most of us have heard this iconic line of dialogue: ”The name is Bond. James Bond.”
Ah, but what if the name hadn’t been James Bond? What if the name Ian Fleming gave his super-spy had been “Crane, Ichabod Crane”?
Clearly, a name that worked for the nebbish, nervous protagonist of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow would not work for the decisive, suave hero of Fleming’s tales of espionage and danger.
Why not? Let’s take a closer look.
James Bond: Neither given name nor surname is flowery or unusual. They are short, simple, strong. Together they give us an impression that the character is a straightforward man of action.
Ichabod Crane: the first name is odd, a bit awkward and contains the sound “ick.” The last name is that of a long-legged, ungainly bird. Taken together, they suggest someone who is perhaps both homely and gawky.
A character’s name can set a reader’s expectations of how he or she will behave, and a clever writer can tell volumes about a character, or condition the atmosphere around him, merely through the syllables they choose to label him. Names send subliminal messages about a character, suggesting things about his or her nature that most readers will pick up on. This will happen whether the writer is aware of it or not.
Character names can also tell the reader in what spirit to take the entire story. Douglas Adams gave his Hitchhiker’s Guide characters such oddball names as “Zaphod Beeblebrox” and “Ford Prefect,” which could leave no doubt in his readers’ minds about how they were to take his tales of intergalactic adventure.
William Goldman, in writing The Princess Bride, made a running gag of the fact that the hero of his off-kilter fairy tale was named “Westley.” He devotes an extended scene in the book (and the movie) to Westley explaining why he changed his name to the inherited “Dread Pirate Roberts,” a far more menacing moniker. After all, who’d shiver in fear of the “Dread Pirate Westley”?
In more serious fiction, too, notable successes often involve evocative names. Tolkien, a linguist by profession, was a master at giving things and people names that roll off the tongue in sonorous waves. Gandalf, Saruman, Thranduil, Galadriel. Magical names for magical characters. What name could say more about strength than Thorin Oakenshield? Or what could suggest obsequiousness and conniving better than Smeagol or Grima Worm-tongue?
Even the characters’ secondary names are cunning pieces of shading. Aragorn is also Strider and Elessar. Gandalf the Gray becomes Gandalf the White, but he is also called Stormcrow, Greyhame, The Grey Pilgrim, The White Rider, Láthspell, and Mithrandir—an elvish name that hints at dimensions of his character that are hidden. Given that he is a Mayar—which is a being somewhere between an Avatar and an archangel—this is appropriate.
Stay tuned for a discussion of choosing names for places and things.