January 28th, 2007

book and glasses

The naming of names...

There's been another go-round on the subject of the Naming of Names on my home newsgroup recently. We hold to the "nine and sixty ways" rule in that place, which is a quote from Kipling: "There are nine and sixty ways/of constructing tribal lays/and every one of them is right" (or something close to that - I haven't gone on Google to dig up the precise quote, people are free to correct me in comments if they so wish. The sentiment, though, is what's important. Every writer writes differently, writes in their own way. And that's okay.

But I have to admit my constant and consistent bafflement with those writers who appear to be able to write entire novels with characters who boast only "placeholder" names, or, worse, are referred to only as X or Y. How, *HOW*, are you supposed to have REAL people in a REAL story if they're no more than cyphers? In one of my comments on the names thread, I said -

>> True Names Have Power...

And this is something that an entire canon of Faerie lore has been built on, after all. You do not give your true name to people unless you trust them absolutely, or you give them power over you. Sometimes you don't even give you true name to people you trust completely, in order not to lead them into temptation. In other connected lore, if you summon a demon to your side you'd better know his name, precisely, or you will neither be able to control him while he's here nor un-summon him when you think you're done with him. And sometimes you have to actually find OUT something's true name before it will honour a bargain (remember Rumpelstiltskin?)

Sometimes a name will nail a culture - for example, when Chinese people living in the Western world actually have two names, the one which they turn to the outside world of their everyday existence (an ordinary Western name like Joy or Sam) and a traditional Chinese name which, in its original form, few Western tongues could even pronounce properly and which non-speakers of the original language would utterly fail to appreciate anyway because it has a meaning beyond the actual name itself and defines the person and the personality of its bearer to a degree that is incomprehensible outside the culture.

Even T S Eliot knew this truth. Go read the poem about the cat contemplating its third name its secret name -

The name
that no human research can discover--
But The Cat Himself Knows,
and will never confess.

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought,
of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

I could not even contemplate, in my own work, writing a story about a character whose name is just stuffed into the narrative because I have to call the thing something *for the time being*, or about someone called X or Y. If I tried the latter, I'd start weaving daydreams about what kind of names start with X - Xavier? Xander? Xerxes? Xena" (there aren't THAT many!) or with Y - Yseult? Yvonne? Yelisaveta?... What kind of culture am I in - Greek? Persian? Pseudo..? (one of my favourite EVER quotes overheard on the Web was someone's comment that she liked things to be, you know, *real*, like in Xena...) Already, you see, I'm off at a worldbuilding tangent, figuring out where my people fit, how they live, what they want, what will hurt them and what will make them happy. With placeholder names, I cannot possibly write the same character if I call her Tiffany or if I call her Sophia or if I call her Eleanor or if I call her Mary, or Lessa, or Ash, or Jane Eyre (Tiffany Eyre? Really? The same?...) My characters don't get begun unless I know them well enough to call them by name - their real name - their TRUE name. The name of their spirit. The name that allows them to come alive and sometimes put their own hand on their story, guiding it, making it better by helping ME, who is writing it, understand it from within.

True Names Matter.

And yet, if you put this truth to a group of writers who believe in the nine-and-sixty-ways rule, you get responses like this:

>> "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet"

(which, peace be unto Shakespeare, was used as a justification even when HE used it - because Juliet was trying to convince herself that Romeo's identity did not matter in the least when both of them knew that it did, immeasurably)

and the riposte:

>"The grubslobs are beautiful at this time of year. And the scent, my dear, the grubslob scent is unmatched."

(proves my point, that. The grubslobs may be utterly beautiful in their own context, but calling something a grubslob, unless it is accompanied by a certain amount of context and worldbuilding, is just the author trying to be funny and smart.And, for my money, failing.)

Names signify things, and identify things. Could you possibly imagine an Orc called Legolas or Luthien? What kind of people do the Rohirrim names put you in mind of? Can you honestly say that if you hear the word "halfling", never mind "hobbit", you don't instantly thing of hairy feet and walking stomachs...?

Can you imagine a King on the throne of Great Britain called Chuck - although that's something that "Charles" is traditionally mushed into in America? Could American fathom how a King Henry was once known as a Prince Hal? Even the contractions are regional, vivid, place-nailing, worldbuilding.

True Names Matter.

Name your people well.