Names, Names, Names

I’ll never forget what my ninth grade English teacher said about naming: “Names have meaning. When an author gives a character a certain name, what does it tell you about the character?” but lately it seems like I’ve been seeing reviews for books with increasingly crazy names that really make no sense (and here I’m looking at you, young adult market).

I mean, seriously, here’s a random selection of names from YA novels I’ve seen lately:

  1. America Singer
  2. Velveteen Monroe
  3. Zoey Redbird
  4. Evening Spiker
  5. Ever
  6. Yukiko Kitsune

One of my favourite YA authors is L.J. Smith. If you haven’t read The Forbidden Game, go and read it. (She’s going to be writing a sequel to it, too! <3) It’s awesome, it takes its inspiration from Norse mythology, and it’s awesome. The name of the main character in The Forbidden Game has the very ordinary name of Jenny, Jenny Thornton, and her boyfriend’s name is Tom.

Seriously, Jenny and Tom, and yet, they still say more about their personalities than all those fancy names up top need at least two extra syllables to say. Tom and Jenny are both, well, everypersons, and they have names that reflect that.

Okay, sometimes authors give their characters really warped names, let’s take Philip K. Dick’s VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligent System). The main character in this book is named Horselover Fat–now go back and look at the author’s name.

This is the part where you say “Oh, I get it! This is Philip K. Dick’s highly fictionalized autobiography focusing on his acceptance of Gnosticism!” (“Philip” means “lover of horses” and Dick is German for fat.) and at that point your mind is blown.

Now, I’m not saying that all of the names above are completely unjustified, after all “America” is a perfectly acceptable name (at least, in the US) like Dakota, or whatever, and in Zoey’s case, she’s a vampyre, and all vampyres are given the option to change their names to whatever they want, so you get names like “Jack Twist” (yes, the fledgling in question is gay). Although, there’s really no need for that extra y, as Zoe is still pronounced “Zoh-ee” without it, but whatever. But Velveteen? Evening Spiker? What is it with novels set in the future? Are parents just that desperate for names that they need to start naming their children after the weather (Final Fantasy has you beat there, ha!)

Okay, okay, you know what? I’m guilty of this, I like giving my RPG characters painfully obvious names. I called my gambler Felix (“luck”), my half-Chinese albino character is named Yue (“moon”), my somewhat anal-retentive Paladin-like, dignified super soldier is Auguste (“greatness”). I like my character names to reflect something about the character, or about the people who gave them that name, as with Beauregard (yes, that’s his first name) whose parents gave him that name because they wanted to give him a name that was as  pretentious as possible, because they’re jerks like that. He just shortens it to Beau, or Bobo, if you’re family.

The thing is, I think there’s a difference between “Oh, that’s clever,” and “WTF WHY IS YOUR NAME SO OBVIOUS?” Seriously, how many of you read American Gods? How many of you read American Gods and didn’t realize who Low-Key Lyesmith was until the very end of the book? How many of you listened to the audiobook and still didn’t clue in? How many of you are reading this and still don’t get it?

This is what I’m talking about.

I’ll give another example of naming conventions from my recent writing. I was tinkering with my short story/novelette/novella/whatever the heck it is when I noticed I had a tendency to give certain characters names that ended in “u” and then from that, a rule developed that in their fictional language, a name ending in “u” is seen as a bit more, hm, “masculine” (however you define that term) even though the person who has the name might be a woman or intersex.

Names mean things. I’ll react differently to a character named Orok gro-Malok than one named Schtolteheim Reinbach III (if you know where that name is from, you are either lucky, a very rich gamer, or you have very nice friends). Sometimes, authors will exploit these preconceived notions, as Lois McMaster Bujold did with Jokol Skullsplitter (it’s not what you think).

Also, can we please stop with the fucking apostrophes?

Look, I understand if you’re working with a language that uses punctuation to indicate sounds and such, but seriously, I thought this fad ended like, a decade ago. I tolerated it when I read Dragonriders of Pern because, well, it’s a classic, but seriously, no one is going to think you’re uncool for not using random apostrophes, quite the opposite, actually.

Another pet peeve of mine (YMMV though) is when names are difficult to pronounce. Wait, wait, before you all jump on me, there are definitely situations where people might have hard to say names, especially if your world is based on a real-life culture with some interesting ways of pronouncing certain letter combinations. I think that even here, authors can screw up royally. A recent example that I read was Kari Sperring’s Living with Ghosts (which I do not recommend), as I understand it, Gran Romagne is well, France, kind of, but the names! EVERY name looks like it has at least three syllables:




Iareth Yscoithi

Fortunately, the author included a handy guide to pronouncing the names, (the first three are pronounced like in French) but then you add in the nicknames (people who are familiar with each other tend to shorten names) and it just becomes a mess. Having a short name for a protagonist is great, in this respect, because protagonists are, well, protagonists.

There’s not much else that I find particularly rage-worthy. I was going to talk about honorifics/suffixes, but seeing as I’m actually using them in my own writing, that would come across as a little hypocritical. I will say, though, that if you want an example of a work that uses a lot of that sort of thing, check out Warrior and Witch by Marie Brennan. Holy shit, every witch in that book has a Japanese sounding name and a suffix (sixteen in total) that details their exact position in society. It’s nuts.

I feel better now, because I only use four.

Anyways, so yeah, names, they mean things.

2 thoughts on “Names, Names, Names

  1. I don’t know if you read romance novels but they are even worse at naming than YA and Fantasy combined.

    I’m one who didn’t get ‘Low-Key’ ’til it was handed to me. And I was embarrassed, too, but not as embarrassed as I was when I read the Harry Potter series and didn’t get ‘Sirius Black’ until a middle of the night epiphany. (“OH.. His name’s Sirius, and he changes into a dog! A BLACK dog!”) My friends still laugh at me for that.

    Hmmm… I seem to be admiting a lot of embarrassing things here…

    • I was going to mention romance novels but it was late and I was tired (reading that post now, I’m surprised anyone understands it). Seriously, if I had a dollar for every love interest in a romance novel named Dante or Damien, I’d be rich, or every time a character’s name is a combination of two names, like JoAnna, spelled like that. What’s the matter with plain Joanna?

      I mentioned this in another post, I think, but another thing that really bugs me is when you have super-powerful beings with really mundane names. Now, there might be a reason for this (being wants to be less threatening, they’re true name is hard to pronounce) but where I really raise my eyebrows is when a being uses a mundane name for no apparent reason (especially if they come from a culture that uses different naming conventions). “I’m George, Destroyer of Worlds”, kind of ruins the effect.

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