On Naming Things

(“Things”, huh?  Yeah, I’m a writer who knows how to use words…haha.)

So, I just finished final edits on a story that I think is really, really strong.  As strong as the one that keeps getting all those damned personal rejections (that I love, really, but I just want it accepted somewhere…).  I think this one is finally a worthy follow-up to that one.

But I had to spend about forty minutes today fixing the names used in the story.  So I figured I’d talk a bit about what I looked for.

I let myself use whatever phrases or names I want in the early drafts, but in the final draft I sometimes have to do a “this is a story that others are going to read” check.

The first thing I look for is any word or phrase that has a recognizable meaning.  For example, when I wrote the first version of this story I used the words Kaliph and Kaliphate.  Well, caliph and caliphate definitely have meanings.  And that’s why those terms popped into my head as I was writing the story.

But I don’t want all of the implication of Islamic society weighing down the story.  Yes, the story is set in a similar region but I’m not trying to tell a story about any sort of Islamic culture.  And, given the subject matter of this story, some could think I was if I left those terms in place, so I had to create new terms that I could substitute in there.

The other problem I had is that (for whatever reason) I had chosen Italian-sounding names for a handful of secondary characters.  Problem was, those names didn’t fit with the imaginary culture I had created and all the other terms and phrases I had made up for the story.  So I had to go find new names that fit the imaginary language of my culture.

Now, it’s possible that someone would want to do the exact opposite.  They could choose to use names that are evocative of a certain area or use titles and other terminology that echo a certain time or culture.  (I think Guy Gavriel Kay does this at times with Italy.)

If you’re going to do that, it should be deliberate.  If I’d just left in Kaliph because, well, it came to me and I was too lazy to look it up, then that’s a problem.

Even now, I can only judge my story from an American perspective.  It’s possible that the names I chose that I think have no heft to them, have very strong meaning in other parts of the world.  Thanks to the Internet I can at least do a search on each one and see what the top hits are.  But it’s not fool-proof.

My rule of thumb is that if there are multiple uses for a term–for example, one of my words turns out to be a type of butterfly, a river, a town , and a food dish–then I can use it for my own purposes.  But if there’s only one or two uses of that term, then I need to change it to something else.  (Or suffer the consequence of false associations.)

I also run my made-up words through Google translate with “detect language” selected so I can see if I’m accidentally using a word that means something in another language.  It isn’t perfect, but it helps.

I also look for overlap in character names.  I’ve written about this before, but you don’t want two characters whose names start with the same sound.  Jack and James, for example.  This is especially true when dealing with weird names.  It’s too easy for a reader to confuse the characters.  If you have Kalainanan and Kalieadasan, chances are someone is just going to see Kal-an and keep confusing the two over and over again.

Sure, those might be their real names in the world in your head.  But they shouldn’t have those names when you publish the book or story.

Of course, that’s just my personal opinion.  You can actually do whatever you want.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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