What’s in a Name?

While a rose by any other name would indeed smell as sweet, when words are the only way you can show others your character, names can matter a lot. Who would read “Igglesworth and Juliet,” for example?

(Ok, I might, but you get the point)

With human characters, you have a number of standard considerations–you have to choose names that are plausible for the place and time of your setting (even though some writers ignore this rule), for example. But most of my characters in To Give a Rose are not human. That changes things.

When your characters are members of species that doesn’t use names (and aren’t pets named by their masters), you don’t have to worry about cultural and historical plausibility, of course–but everything else gets a lot harder.

The first question is whether to name your characters at all. If your protagonist is the only member of his or her species in the story, you can get away without a personal name. Just say “the bobcat,” or whatever. I have never actually encountered this in a novel, though, in part because it’s hard to imagine an interesting novel-length story about an animal that never has any interaction with its own kind. There won’t be any sex, for one thing.

Having decided to use names, you then have to choose or invent a naming convention that isn’t too distracting. The problem is that names are cultural indicators, so if you choose names that already exist, you’ll be implying that your characters belong to a culture that they obviously don’t and the paradox will bother some readers.

There are also issues with race, culture, and gender. For example, if you’re a white American and you give your characters names from your own culture, you’ll be implying that white American culture is the universal norm. On the other hand, deliberately using names from cultures other than yours for animals could be obviously problematic, too. Or, say you’re writing a story about a family of spotted hyenas. In this species, females are larger and much more aggressive than males, so does it really make sense to give them feminine-sounding names with connotations of daintiness? There’s a lot to think about.

The idea of inventing a naming convention that fits your characters’ species better has promise, but what does it mean to fit a species? One beta-reader for Rose tried very hard to get me to abandon the multi-syllabic names I’d chosen in favor of more primitive-sounding forms like Zag and Dag. In his view, phonetically complex names didn’t fit a primitive species. I disagreed, maintaining that a simple name is no better than a complex name for a species that doesn’t use names at all. It would be like describing Pennsylvania as “out West,” which is technically true if you live in New Jersey, but still misleading.

Though I did re-name a bit character Zag as a kind of tribute to my friend–I don’t know if he noticed.

For a name to fit means that its associations fit the character, but I ended up deciding that no set of names could have associations that fit australopithecines–that meant I had to invent new names. And yet, I’ve noticed that alien-sounding names are hard to remember. When I’ve read books whose characters are named too far outside the conventions I’m used to, I simply mix them up. So, I wanted names that followed the same phonetic rules as those of my own culture, yet were rigorously original.

Easier said than done.

Associations crept in by accident. One character actually bore the name “Steven” for a while, because I was simply trying variations on a phonetic theme (Starlin, Stavin, Staren?) and didn’t notice I’d re-invented an existing name. My editor caught the mistake and I fixed it. Then “Sevin,” the name of one of the main characters, turned out to also be the name of an aggricultural pesticide. There just aren’t enough utterly unique combinations of sounds.

Then there was the difficulty of coming up with a huge number of names, since for various reasons I had to name many more characters than actually appear in the story–well over a hundred.

Some names ended up growing out of the number-letter codes I used when I was creating the genealogies of the community, before I developed characters. Gethrie, for example, was originally the third child of the female coded “G.” G3 became Geethree, which became Gethrie–I later changed the birth order, making Gethrie actually fifth in his family, but I kept the name. Lemno, the male originally coded “L,” got his name from the alphabet sequence LMNO. Other names were variations on adjectives that fit the character, like the sassy Sassa or the sisterly Sistra, or unusual nicknames used by people I knew, such as Nathi and Jayd, or simply variations on phonetic themes, like Sassa’s sister, Sapha. Like Jane Goodall, I gave all characters in the same maternal line names that shared the same initial, with the obvious exception of Semana, who insisted on naming herself.

Curious patterns arose. For example, the vast majority of male characters ended up with names ending in “i” or “ie,” while the names of females never do–usually they end in consonants or in “a.” That’s slightly different from mainstream American human names, a divergence I never intended to make.

I do not claim that the system I invented is necessarily the best one I could have used, but it does work. If the book someday gets popular, perhaps these names will become familiar and grow their own new associations.

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About Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.
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