Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thoughts on The Craft -- c.anne.gardner

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy...
William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”

Or should that be: Alas, poor Mark, Rick, or Steve?????

I ran across a blog poll last week, which begged the question: Is it important that you can pronounce character names? I was startled that 79% or 673 votes came back yes, with a paltry 182 votes for no. One commenter actual stated: Yes, I will stop reading a book because of the character name. However, as I browsed through the post comments, I found the majority to be in the minority percentage. The “No” votes were the most vocal in that naming conventions were not critical to whether or not they liked a story and would continue reading.

Now I can see where naming conventions would be important. Historical fiction for example can and should be rather rigid about the rules of naming conventions. After all, it is fiction set against the backdrop of historical fact. Authenticity is critical to the suspension of disbelief in this case, and so your characters should be named appropriately for their time and place in history. As far as contemporary work goes, most names have mutated from their native forms over the eons, cultures cross, and naming conventions have changed substantially with the advent of baby name books and web-sites. Family names are still used to a great degree as well as symbolic cultural names, but even those are subject to alteration. If we take a look at the Greek name Selena, which means ‘Moon’ we can see how that has changed with the passage of time, not just in meaning, but in spelling variations as well. In the fantasy and sci-fi genres, we have a great deal more creative leeway with our character names, just as we do with the world they live in.

All that said, ethnic bias and stereotyping can still come into play even in today’s modern society. If your main character is Irish then some readers will insist that the character have an approved Irish name with all the complimentary cliché Irish physicalities. So what you can get away with will mostly be determined by your genre, your story, and your ideal reader.

Personally -- as a reader of a wide range of fiction and non-fiction -- if a character name seems appropriate to the story, I don’t care if I can pronounce it or not. I wouldn’t meet someone for the first time and say, “I can’t pronounce your name, it seems odd to me, so, I don’t want to know you.” I don’t do that to fictional characters either. It’s the name the author gave them at birth, the name the author felt suited them, and so I generally respect the choice unless it seems utterly ridiculous for the language, the story, or the character, but in some cases a contradictory name can be important to the overall message, so I try not to pass judgement too hastily. I am always more interested in who a character is than their label. Maybe this is easier for me since I read a lot of foreign translations and fantasy fiction. I am just used to interesting, and in the case of Russian Literature, oftentimes lengthy difficult to pronounce names. I don’t go into books with preconceived notions. It’s the author’s fictional world, and as long as it’s logical within the confines of the piece, I am more than willing to embrace that world as reality for its allotted number of pages.

So tell me authors. How do you pick your character names? Do they come with names, like mine do in some cases? Do you research names like I do in other situations? Do you take creative license at times, or do you stick with rigid naming conventions? And lastly, when you’re reading, has an author’s naming convention irritated you enough to give up on a book, or are you like me -- When in Rome!

The art is Yorick’s skull in the gravedigger scene of Hamlet (5.1) by Eugene Delacroix

Cheryl Anne Gardner


Shannon Yarbrough said...

I love picking names! In most cases, I try to create names from anagrams of traits of the characters. I have a historical piece I've been writing for a few years where all of the names are very unique because they are all anagrams but over time I've tweaked them a little.

In my book, Stealing Wishes, which you reviewed here most of the names were selected from Christopher Isherwood's characters and real life friends.

I also consult baby name sites to search for meanings of names sometimes. And in the case of what I'm writing now, my lead character was first named after a street close to my house but in the story he gives himself a new name - choosing his last name from a character in a book he read and a first name from a baby name website.

Kristine said...

As a writer of SF, I go to great lengths to give my charaters believable names. Like:

Ethan. Stephen. April.

I try to keep in mind some of the most well-known SF/Fantasy of our time have protags with the names Luke, and Sam. It drives me a tad batty when an author has clearly gone to extremes to name their SF or Fantasy characters with as many unpronounceable apostrophes and tongue twisters as they can, because they believe that's required of anything not of this world.

Do it if that's important to the story, but don't do it just to see how many gaps, hisses and apostrophes you can cram in there.

That said - will a name stop me from reading a book? Of course not. Being bored by the book will stop me, but if there's a name that doesn't roll off my mental tongue, I'll find a way to deal with it.

One of my favorite authors used Mnemenmeth in the first book I read by her, and I went on to purchase (nearly) her entire catalog over the years.

As to how I find the regular names I use, occasionally I'll hit some of the baby name websites, but generally I pop open a phone book and start looking around.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I like your site Kristine. I agree with you on the overdone crazy names, but I rarely run across that. I like Russian Lit and they have a habit of referring to a character in the full formal name and then that same character might have a shortened version and then a few nicknames as we would call them. It can be quite confusing at first, but once you get used to that style you don't notice it.

The phone book. I have never even thought of that. :) Sometimes I will use movie character names if something strikes me, like you Shannon and your Isherwood names. I use baby name books and websites too. Sometimes history books if I need something from a particular time period and culture.

Me too. Nothing stops me reading a book unless it's boring or poorly written.

roger sakowski said...

Once again you article hits home with me. I take a great deal of trouble finding names for my characters. First I ask: is there a name that can reference an external concept that plays well with the internal concepts? Then I consider the sound of it: does it resonate and/or represent puns? Here’s a small example:

I picked the name Muirdirs for a name of a character in my book. The name references an ancient Irish tale passed down. Muirdris was the name of a dragon in an ancient Celtic story. He was slain by Fergus Mac Léti. The story is a somewhat humorous, but undoubted it comes from a much earlier, and solemn, version. I named another character George (often referred to as St. George) and gave him the last name of Fergus to complete the internal and external relationships. The inferences this interaction and confluence of images create tickles me to no end. I also like the sound of the name Muirdris no matter how one chooses to pronounce it (myŪr-dris is how I would say it; it does bring murderous and murderess to mind). There’s quite a bit more regarding the names in the book, but this is enough to make two points: names do more than just identify characters, and I’m not playing with a full deck.

All of this begs the question: do I really expect the reader to pick up on this? Actually I don’t. Rather I use it as a means to identify abstract relationships and exploit them. It’s one avenue I use in the process of building a literary work in layers. That’s why it takes me so damn long I guess.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don't sweat over my characters' names. I usually pick the first one that comes to my mind. That said, all my protagonists'' first names begin with 'J' – Jonathan, Jim and John (and, hopefully, Jen, if I ever get this one finished) – because they're all aspects of me to a greater or lesser extent. I find it hard once I've decided on a name to change it later and I can only actually remember doing it once with a minor character when editing Living with the Truth and although there was a good reason editorially to make the change it doesn't feel right to me.

I've just finished The Master and Margarita. Now, there is a book where names are important and very long. I just make my best guess and stick with it, in fact I don't think I honestly read Russian names, I just recognise the shape of the letters and who they represent and then I move on.

Christy Pinheiro, EA ABA said...

I have to admit that if I feel I can't pronounce a name I get really pissed. When I was in high school, my favorite fantasy books were Melanie Rawn's Sunrunner series. I still really loved the books and read them all. But I distinctly remember being totally aggravated with the character names POL and Sioned (I think I spelled that second one right-- it's been almost 20 years).

So I think it DOES matter, because I actually still remeber that from so long ago. But it won't stop me from reading a good book.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I wind up making up my phonetic interpretation of the name in that case, Christy, a nickname of sorts.

That's is so funny Jim with the "j" names. I am currently reading The Master and Margarita. I read a lot of Russian Literature, so it doesn't bother me so much anymore. Outstanding story it is. I am about 1/2 way through and finding it brilliant. I have wanted to read it for years and it just kept slipping out of my mind until amazon recommended it to me and jogged my memory.

Roger, I do the same thing, I don't expect to reader to pick up on any symbolic aspects of a name, it's more for me as the writer to keep the idea in the forefront of my mind. I also pick names that tend to fit the poetic flow of the story, that have a resonance all their own. And the parts on Muirdirs, those were my favorite parts of the book. Nice to know the legend behind the name and I can see how it fit.

Jim Murdoch said...

Can I recommend this site then? It has more material on The Master and Margarita than you could ever use. I'm working on a review of the book at the moment and I'm sitting at 4000 words and feel like I've skimmed over everything and really said nothing other than it's a great book.

The Russians finally got round to filming the book and 80 million sat down in front of their TV sets to watch it - that's more than watched The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show to put it in perspective.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Awesome Jim. Thanks. Must have been a well done film version. I have the copy that has all the extended commentary in it to help understand some of the subtleties of the Russian text.

I can see why it was banned.