What’s in a Name?


Names in Reality

Know any interesting place names?  Sure you do.  Let me run some past you?

Drive up Honey Run Road from Chico into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains until you reach the covered bridge.  From there you can turn onto Humbug Road and proceed to Helltown.  Or you can stay on Honey Run and follow it up to Paradise.  Some say Paradise got its name from the gold rush era and was called Pair of Dice.  Accept that explanation or not, depending on your mind-set.  People do retire there among the pine trees and consider it a lovely spot.

Drive north from the Sacramento Valley into the mountains and eventually you pass a turnoff to Igo and Ono.

If you travel west into the coast range, you can meet the Yolla Bolly Wilderness where the Glory Hole is.

Names.  We could fill a book about grabby place names, but how about people names?

In high school I knew Lola LaRue.  How can you improve on a name like that for sexy?  Or Larry Lalaguna, a student I taught in high school biology?  Music.

Names in Fiction

Naming characters in fiction is as much fun as the first taste of dark chocolate.  I was sure I had a winner when Holly Go-Lightly popped into my mind.  Ah, the genius of it!  Until I realized this is the heroine in Breakfast at Tiffanys.  It’s not the first time I thought I was creating something original.  In my fantasy novels I named tribes and characters, only to find these very names, down to the spelling, exist in reality.

I thought my name was original.  A Google search showed me otherwise.  Another writer, Gloria Piper, exists.  Her interests are not mine, however.  Does she think of herself as piping the glory?  I might do it to a lesser extent than what my name implies, but when I write my spiritual memoirs, I will indeed be piping the glory.

For now, I’m into science fiction and fantasy.  And I like names to have meaning.  In real life, one can’t judge people by their names.  Noel Coward, for example, would hardly be considered cowardly.  Stephen Crane is not a bird.  While my name is Piper, I do not play bag pipes, though I have been into music.  Years ago I belonged to a choir wherein existed a Piper (me), a Fifer, and two Dingalings.  Mrs. Dingaling told me she had planned on keeping her maiden name, until she met her future husband and loved everything about him.

I do follow certain rules of naming in fiction…more or less.  My rules.  They might not apply to other writers’.

  1. A name should be easy to remember.

Fantasy writers love to invent names, and sometimes these are long and complicated.  I can understand the use of, say, Irish names from mythology with their daunting pronunciation.  Accuracy trumps complexity, so the author’s task is to reduce the reader’s burden by presenting these names in as clear a way as possible without being too obvious about it and thereby insulting the reader’s intelligence.  Tricky, but doable.

  1. Names should be distinct.

It’s easy to see that Cindy, Wendy, and Mindy are similar.  But I recall reading a novel where three sisters had names like Kathryn, Margaret, and Elizabeth.  Different from one another, right?  Yet I kept getting the sisters mixed up.

Was it just me?  Possibly.  Nevertheless, the names seemed interchangeable with their similar cadence and background.

We need a greater variation.  Names should differ in sound, number of syllables, and rhythm.  In Finnegan’s Quest some of my character names are Squeeze, Crookshank, Finnegan.

  1. Names should contain some logic.

In Train to Nowhere, I have three different cultures.  The Orphan Caste is housed in a computerized train, so the characters there have computer-derived names—except our hero’s.  The Landed Caste lives in cities and on farms, so their names come from their environment and occupations.  The Nomads are free roaming and have poetic or mystical names.

A name may describe a character, whether through definition or sound.  Uriah Heep sounds like a creep.  Little John is a big man.  Dick Tracy is a detective.  Scrooge, well, his name came to define the tight-fisted.

So, do I follow my own rules?  You be the judge.  Read my books.


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