Friday, September 12, 2014

What's in a Name?

Among the often-overlooked and under-appreciated elements that go into preparing novels for publication are the people increasingly known as “beta readers” (after the “beta users” who form such an important part of testing software programs before release). Beta readers kick the tires of novels that have gone through numerous drafts and appear ready for release. Typically, they have not seen the book before; in this sense, they stand in for the readers who will approach the novel without prior preparation—unlike a writers’ group, which has had intense and direct contact with both book and author from the beginning. A good writers’ group can be invaluable, but eventually novels have to face the world without the benefit of prior acquaintance, and beta readers oversee an important transition point on that journey.

For Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades, I especially needed good beta readers. I had begun the novels early in my fiction-writing life, while my sense of what constituted good writing remained somewhat hazy. And although I felt pretty comfortable that I recognized what needed fixing, I desperately wanted someone else to assure me that the revised books merited publication. I was lucky not only to find a good friend to bounce ideas off in the early stages but to find two great beta readers as well (in the interests of full disclosure, one of the two is a member of my writers’ group, but she had never seen these books before or discussed them with me and in fact learned of their existence about five minutes before they landed in her in box).

Their comments were interesting, enlightening, and helpful, but the one that gives rise to today’s post is a question: how do I come up with names for characters and places in my stories?

Good question. The true answer is, “It varies.” But the process offers some fun insights into how writers think, so I decided to share them.

With the Legends of the Five Directions series, the answer is fairly simple. For the Russians, I look for names appropriate to the period with minimal alternate forms. Russians love nicknames, and most names have several variants that express closeness at a given moment—from full name and patronymic (formal, showing respect) to super-affectionate. In the sixteenth century, when my stories are set, there were also forms assigned to people with lower social standing, now called pejoratives and most often used among criminals. These are the forms assigned to my servant and soldier characters: Stenka is one example.

I don’t follow every convention of the time: for example, women often used their husband’s name instead of their father’s, and family names were not yet set. Except when forced by circumstances such as baptism or monastic vows that necessitated a name change, I try to give each character one name appropriate to his or her station and stick to it throughout the series. Place names are not a problem because they are all historical, although the place associated with the name today, if it still exists, may bear little resemblance to its sixteenth-century self.

With my Tatar characters, I initially botched it by pulling in every Tatar or Mongol name I could think of. After a while, I realized that “Tatar” was not one amorphous group but many subcultures, some of which had “dibs” on certain names (Girei—also anglicized as Giray or Girey—for example, was associated with the rulers of Crimea). These days I use a list, downloaded from the Internet, which tells me not only the names but where they originate. As much as possible, I favor names of Turkic or Persian origin, although there are lots of Muhammads and Ibrahims in Tatar history, too. Ideally, the name says something about the character: Bulat, for example, means “steel” in Tatar. Gulnara derives from gul—flower, especially a rose—more appropriate, perhaps, in that lady’s youth than when we meet her in middle age. Diliara has the connotation of sweetness, and Firuza means “turquoise,” a semiprecious gem traditionally perceived to have healing powers.

All this sounds very rational and planned. But what happens when I try to change a character’s name? I’ve made such attempts on several occasions, for one reason or another. Nina Pennington, in The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, began life as Sara. But around the time I was ready to release the book, I ran into numerous heroines named Sara and decided to change mine. Sounds simple enough, but it took forever to find a name that suited the character as well. Eventually I settled on Ninel, shortened to Nina, and that stuck. Sort of—I still call her Sara if I don’t stop and remind myself otherwise.

Girei, in The Golden Lynx, as well as his parents Bulat and Sumbeka were less successful examples. It turned out to be easier to manufacture a connection to Crimea than to find an alternate name for Girei. Nothing “felt” quite right, to me or my writers’ group. Bulat and Sumbeka worked well until I decided to set part of The Winged Horse in Kazan, which in 1534 contained a historical Bulat (Shirin) and Söyëmbike (the Tatar name Russianized as Sumbeka). Again I wrestled with alternatives before deciding that it was simpler to change the new characters’ names than the old ones’, not least because it avoided any overlaps between the historical originals and my inventions.

So how do I come up with names? I research, in part, but mostly I seem to capture them out of the ether, settling only when I sense a fit between the name and a character’s personality. Not a satisfactory answer, perhaps, but a true one. When it feels right, I go with it. I just try to ensure that the results remain possible within that time and space. 

When the time and space are my own—as with the Tarkei Chronicles—then I let my imagination run free, pulling in every language where I have even a passing acquaintance as raw material and trying to ensure that the final choices don’t tip too far in one direction and sound like the places and people linked to them. For sounds themselves convey meaning, and like music one has to hear them in combination to know what feels right. Developing an ear for language is (or should be) part of a writer’s job—and a fun job it is.

Image: Rosa rubinginosa © 2005 Stan Shebs
Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License 1.2.

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