Wulf Moon's SUPER SECRET #44: A Rose by Any Other Name Is Not Just as Sweet
Copyright 2020 by Wulf Moon. All Rights Reserved.
Shakespeare had it wrong. Oh, his metaphor was brilliant. It didn't matter what hated clan or house she came from; Juliet would be the same charming girl Romeo had fallen in love with no matter what tag she used in her gaming guild. But what if Shakespeare had named her Drz'dddgvzbtk? Rashqhashjzkna-ha-ha-ha? Billie Bobbess? Her fame in literature would be diminished because household names need to roll off the tongue. They need to match the character they represent, and people need to be able to speak them. Both in their minds, and from their lips. Fortunately, Shakespeare chose the perfect name for the only daughter of Lord Capulet, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Maybe you have a friend that can write as good as Shakespeare. Maybe she's even been published. Maybe her current story is truly brilliant. Maybe she asked you to read it and you love everything in it, save for this one thing ... she thought it would be sweet to give her major character an unpronounceable name.
I get it. We're writers. We make—erm—stuff up. We invent worlds, we create beasts, and yes, from the dust of earth we fashion a body and blow into it the breath of life and bring forth the living soul. We are miracle makers. And then we take our miracle and name it Solazy'me'ear't'w'rkd. The reader opens your story, sees your dashing heroine swinging from a rope off the yardarm, brandishing her cutlass, crying out to her bloodthirsty pirates, "Chicken dinner with glazed carrots and creme brulee for dessert to the man that takes their captain alive!" And then, the shocker. This greatest line in the history of literature gets destroyed by Solazy'me'ear't'w'rkd said.
<insert scratching vinyl record sound here>
Full stop! The reader backs up. You see their lips move, sounding it out. They put their lips back in drive and try to move forward. They slide into the ditch again. They put their mind into four-wheel drive and back up and take another run at it. Still unnavigable. Do they proceed? The dashing heroine did appear to be able to cook a mean chicken dinner, and your reader does love creme brulee when the top gets that hard caramelization and they get to break it with their spoon and dig into all that creamy vanilla goodness. So they assign her the name Solazy and try not to get stuck in the rut every time they see her referred to in the rest of the story.
Alas, in the next paragraph, they discover the heroine's ship is named Me'uthr'pi-rat-ship'eeza'mer'saydeez,
and the reader throws the book against the wall, forever robbed of their creme brulee reward they so eagerly anticipated.Why is it some aspiring writers (and a few famous ones) think unpronounceable words are so cool?
I haven't a clue. Even if they provide a secret decoder ring at the back of the book with all the pronunciations to their unintelligible words, I'm not buying. Readers need characters and places with names they can easily hang a hat on. They like complex plots with surprise twists. They DO NOT like convoluted tongue twisters that their minds and lips can't sound out.
Here's why. Names have meaning. Names have power. Look up names in baby naming lists and you will see symbolism and history in every name. How about Michael? A household name. It comes from the Hebrew name Mikha'el,
and it's actually a given name associated with the challenge "Who is like God?"
It is also the name of the chief of the angelic armies, Michael the Archangel. We associate the name, even subconsciously, with righteous power.
How about Hannibal? Also easy to pronounce. Also associated with a divinity, Baal, a god at enmity with the Hebrew god. This was the Canaanite "Rider of the Clouds" that brought rain to Canaan's crops and fertility to his worshippers through rituals involving licentious temple acts. In Phoenician, Hannibal means "Grace of Baal." You may not recognize that name at first, but I'll bet you've heard of Beelzebub. Its origin comes from the name Baal-Zebub, the deity worshipped in the Philistine city of Ekron. Today, we associate that name as the chief of the fallen angels. You see, the name Hannibal has a bit of the devil built within it.
Thomas Harris chose it as the name of his fictional cannibalistic serial killer, Hannibal Lecter. Like Juliet, it's also a household name, but for vastly different reasons. Also note the author's choice in surname. Lecter sounds the same as the word lector,
which subtly drapes the name with intelligence—a lector is a reader of scripture in church services, or an academic that lectures at a university. The author undoubtedly fashioned his character's surname to subtly cue the reader on the level of Hannibal Lecter's intelligence. At the same time--and with the economy of the same simple surname--the author also cued up a subliminal message of perversion. Lector and lecher are not far removed, and I am certain Harris counted on our brains making the association, even if our subconscious chose not to spell it out for us. Still on the fence? Still holding vowelless Lrd Brgvzldcktkx tight to your chest?
Do you think J.K. Rowling put much thought into the names of her characters? <Using my best Mr. Rogers' voice> "Can you say Harry Potter? I knew you could." How easy that name rolls off the tongue. Harry Potter. It's a good thing Rowling didn't call him by his proper name Harold—much too stiff for the portrayal of an orphaned boy living under his aunt and uncle's stairs. But it is the hypocorism—ahem, nickname—of the personal name we all know as Harold. Harold is derived from the Old English name Hereweald, a union of the Germanic elements here
"army" and weald
"power, brightness." Do you think that's by chance? You'd have to ask Jo Rowling, but I doubt it, even if it was the subconscious offering it to her as a gift. Here's what she said about her name choices in a Q&A session in a Boston school in 1999:"Q: How do you come up with names?
A: Some I make up. Some mean something. Dumbledore is olde English for bumblebee. I thought I made up Hogwarts, but recently a friend said, 'Remember we saw lilies in Kew gardens (a garden in London.)' Apparently there are lilies there called Hogwarts. I'd forgotten!"—Transcribed from the video recording: "The Magical World of JK Rowling."
What did she say about her names? "Some mean something."
That was the understatement of the century. When you look at the names of her characters, it's obvious Rowling put a tremendous amount of creative thought into them. Pomona Sprout over Hogwarts' Herbology Department? Argus Filch as Hogwarts' seedy caretaker? Bellatrix Lestrange, the mad practitioner of the dark arts from the Black
family tree? The prim and immaculately dressed Narcissa
Malfoy? How about her son, Draco Malfoy? Draco is Latin for serpent, from the House of—wait for it—Slitherin.
It should come as no surprise that every bad apple in her world's history comes from the House of Slitherin. Do you get any vibes off a name like Severus Snape? Rowling recognized that names have power. They hold meaning. And because she took care to make them easy to pronounce, easy to remember, and then stuffed them with context, Harry Potter and a host of her characters are now household names.Listen to what one of my favorite authors, Terry Brooks, said about names in his book SOMETIMES THE MAGIC WORKS:
"...NAMES ARE IMPORTANT. You would think this would be obvious, but I find more often than not that it isn't. Maybe part of the problem comes from not understanding what it is that names should do—because they should definitely do more than act as convenient labels. This is true not only of names of characters, but of places and things, as well. Names should serve two very specific ends. They should feel right for the type of story being told, and they should suggest something about the person, place, or thing they are attached to.
"I am acutely aware of this because of the type of fiction I write. In fantasy, where whole worlds are created from scratch, the writer has to give the reader a sense of both differentness and similarity. Readers have to be able to get a handle on what an imaginary world is like, which means they have to be able to recognize how it resembles our own and at the same time understand why it doesn't. In taste, touch, look, and feel, in language and societal structure, in geography and weather, in any way the writer looks at his own world, he will have to look at his imaginary one. I submit that it all begins with the names you use.
"Even in contemporary fiction, I find that names are important. If a name doesn't feel right, it can bother a reader all the way through the book. The sound of a name, the way it looks on the written page, and the connections we make with it both consciously and subconsciously all play a part in how we feel about it....You can avoid the lazy writer's approach to slapping something on without giving it any real thought."
Terry Brooks keeps lists of names to use in his stories. So do I. Terry keeps his list on him wherever he goes. I do not, but it's good advice, and it reveals how serious he believes this issue to be. The names you choose for your characters and creatures and worlds must have meaning and relevance. They need to be easy to pronounce. Your readers will use them as filing tags. If your character names are easy to pronounce and, although fictional, hold resonance in the world we live in, they'll stick in the minds of your judges, editors, and most importantly, your readers. They'll even be able to, oh, I don't know, actually be able to pronounce them. They'll have the ability to use their tongues to tell others about them. Maybe enough to make them household names.
May the light through yonder window break. It is the East, and meaningful names in your story are the sun!ASSIGNMENT:
1. Keep a Name Notebook. Carry it on you. Watch for interesting names in the books you read, in histories, in street signs, in town, river, and lake designations. My Super Secret name source? Movie credits. They are loaded with interesting names and combinations. WRITE THEM DOWN. Become a collector of names and their meanings. Use them in your stories.
2. Check the names in your existing stories. Are they easy to read, easy to sound out, or did you think it was cool to create an alien language without vowels? Do you know why we can't pronounce ancient Hebrew? THEY DIDN'T USE VOWELS, AND THE GUYS THAT KNEW HOW TO SAY THOSE WORDS ARE ALL DEAD. Make it easy to remember yours. Change out those lazy names you plucked from a hat. Your readers and editors and judges will thank you. Maybe with publication and an award. If you're fortunate, maybe one of those characters will become so popular, they'll even become a household name. Like Wulf Moon.