Friday, April 24, 2009

naming characters

From: Donna

When naming your characters, do you give any thought to the actual meaning or do they just come to you?

It depends. Sometimes they come to me, sometimes I have to search, sometimes I encounter the name in some unexpected context and it rings like a bell--so insistently that I have to think of a story to go with it. (This is what happened with Aud.) But yes, the first names of my protagonists are carefully considered. I spend less time on their last names.

I don't know where Marghe's name came from, exactly. I wanted an 'ahr' sound (why, I've no idea, but it's pointless arguing with my subconscious), and at the time I was formulating Ammonite, I was pissed off at the Anglo-Saxonism of science fiction. I had just read a lovely book full of photos of Macau, so decided to make Marghe half Portuguese, half Chinese. So she became Marguerite. Then Marghe. Yes, I know Marguerite is French. But there's a kind of knot in my brain when it comes to names based on Romance languages. I get them all turned around. (See, for example, Philippe, a minor character in The Blue Place, who should have been Felipe.) I think it's because I grew up thinking of continental Europe as irresistibly cosmopolitan: everyone speaks everyone else's language and borrows one another's proper nouns with insouciance.

Lore, from Slow River, is harder to pin down. Again, I was determined she be a citizen of the world, not the UK or US. All I can say is, I'm (pretty) sure her name has nothing to do with The Lord of the Rings, and that I have a fondness for protagonists with one-syllable names. As for her last name, I had help with that from Ruud van de Kruisweg, of Holland SF. He was interviewing me about Ammonite (my very first email interview, in 1994) and asked about my novel-in-progress. I told him about Lore, including her planned first name. He very politely did not burst out laughing but tactfully suggested that van de Oest might be closer to what I was looking for. I accepted his suggestion gratefully.

Aud's name, of course, hit me like an arrow between the eyes. It was 1991. I'd just had a dream about this woman who surges off her bed and kills an intruder with a flashlight, and had been idling wondering what kind of person could do that--just kill someone, whap, without hesitation. Frankly I had no idea, but I couldn't let it go. (I talk about this dream in a radio interview, which you can listen to here.) A few days after this dream I was browsing the stacks of the Gwinnett County (Georgia) Library. I came across a book on Norwegian architecture, which led to an old (circa 1940) Norwegian history text, which mentioned a woman called Aud the Deepminded. Without knowing anything else, I knew I'd found my character's name. "Aud," I thought (it rhymes with cloud), "Aud." And the idea of someone being so remarkable in her own time that she went down in history as The Deepminded fascinated me. Here, I thought, was a formidable person: intellectually, emotionally, and physically. I had an image of a woman whose mind was like a fjord, deep, calm, and cold. I had my character. I've no idea where her last name comes from. A guidebook, perhaps.

Hild's name--no choices there. That's the name of the historical character I'm writing about. The thing is, that's the short form of her name; no one knows the long form. Extrapolating from Anglo-Saxon naming conventions of the 7th century, my guess would be Hildeburh, or Hildeswith. But she was known as Hild. Happily for me it's a good, strong, one-syllable name I can work with.

Generally, though, I'm a bit cavalier about naming secondary characters. My classic example is the tribe of Echraidhe in Ammonite. Their culture is Mongolian. I wanted to use Mongolian names--but couldn't think of any (this was long, long before the world wide web, a decade before Wikipedia) and was in the white-hot writing place where I can't stop, can't stop, not even to do research. So I plugged in ancient Irish names and, well, when I had the first draft the characters had grown so entwined with their names that I couldn't cut them out without hurting them.

I learnt my lesson. Before even opening the .doc file for Hild, I assembled a lot of research on names: on Brittonic, Angle, Saxon, Kentish/Jute, Frankish, Irish, Pictish and so on naming traditions. So this time I think I'm getting it right--or closer to right than I've been before. So, hey, I'm learning.

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