Tuesday, August 27, 2013

TTYU Retro: Manipulating the Feeling Conveyed by Character Names

Naming characters can be fun. It can also be hard. When you're using real names for people - by that I mean ones that come out of this world - I see lots of people using baby naming sites like this one to get ideas. One of the things that you'll run into on a baby names site is listings of the "meaning" of each name. The name Juliette means "soft-haired," for example. Peter means "rock." Averil, according to the baby names book we had at my house, means "wild boar battle maid" (I always loved that one!). There are tons of options and they will not only invoke their meanings (for those who know those meanings) but they will also invoke individuals' experiences with other people who have had that name. I know some people who will say things like, "I could never name a child Susie, because I've had bad luck with Susies."

Fantasy and science fiction often involves making up names. This can be fun and challenging in its own way - and also full of potential pitfalls. Each time you make up a name, it's important to consider not only the onomatopoetic feel of "bright" or "dark" consonants and vowels, for example, but also the different similar words that will be evoked by the name. Take Snape for example. It's just one letter removed from "Snake," and the p that replaces the k is quite similar to the k in that it is an unvoiced stop (unlike, say, "Snafe" or "Snade"). Combine that with the fact that he's in Slytherin, where we "slither in," and instantly he's the poster boy for every unpleasant characteristic we associate with snakes.

Sometimes you can have a name that gives you trouble. Take the name of my protagonist in For Love, For Power. Years ago, when I first named him, he was called Taglet. At a certain point, of course, I realized that was too similar to "piglet" and that was why things were feeling weird. I didn't want to change everything about the name, though, so I changed it to Tagret. That I thought was cool because it had a kind of "target" vibe, and a kind of "regret" vibe, both of which were relevant to my character. I have run into trouble, however, with critiquers who actually have misread the name as "Target." I have no doubt that the ubiquity of advertising for the merchandiser Target is in part at the root of this confusion... but here I am stuck in a place where my name is doing just what I want it to, and yet it's not right.

So, how to change it without changing the fundamentals?

One friend suggested that I remove the "r" and change the name to Taget. This had a certain appeal, except that the default pronunciation for the name would suddenly be "Tajet" or "Tazhay," and that I wasn't too big on. Doubling the "r" would turn it into Tagrret, with a big growl in the center. He's not the growling type. Doubling the "g" turns it into Taggret, which removes the misreading and doesn't change the pronunciation, but I'm leery of it because it may be seen as evoking "aggressive," which he definitely is not. Tagrit sounds too "gritty." In the end, I chose Tagaret (like Margaret).

The longer you've been using a name, the more time you've had to become accustomed to it as an identity for a particular character. This is one of the reasons why changing names can be so difficult. After all, you don't want to rename the person completely for fear of losing the "feel" you've already achieved. I appreciated the suggestion that I change one letter here or there, because it's taken me into a place where I feel I understand the name a lot better, and also what I was trying to achieve when I created it. It's something you might like to try if you're not entirely comfortable with one of the names you're using. Then you can see what kind of similar words you end up evoking with the various options you consider, and hopefully arrive at a better character name than what you started with.

It's something to think about.