Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Power of a Name

Writing is full of tricks and challenges. Some of them are universally abhorred (synopses, I'm looking at you) (though I still love you, so maybe you're not universally abhorred) and some are only mild annoyances. Most seem to slide back and forth on the continuum.

And by that I mean they're usually regarded as mild annoyances until they pop up in your own life and become something you have to deal with personally, at which point they shoot straight across the graph to inspiring I-will-kill-you-until-you-die-from-it levels of seething rage.

One of the most common of these challenges has to do with names. I often see authors on Twitter or around the blogosphere lamenting the naming a character. (Or a monster, or a novel, or a series.) Last week I saw that poor Rachel Vincent had to come up with two names in one day.
People often respond to these kinds of laments by throwing out every name they've ever heard, or even just random words from the dictionary in the case of a title. From what I've observed, 99.9% of the time that doesn't help, by the way. Because it's not just a matter of finding a name that sounds cool. It's never that simple.

Because names have power.

We hear that all the time, right? It's one of those universally acknowledged truths, cemented into human consciousness through repetition and belief.

It's certainly a recurring theme in fantasy, particularly in faerie stories. Knowing a faerie's true name almost always gives you some kind of power over it. True names are also how demons get summoned and magical bindings get sealed more often than not.

We see it in horror too. How many times have you read a story or seen a movie where the girl isn't really afraid of the creepy guy following her until he says her name? There are so many of these I couldn't even narrow it down to my favorite example. "You know my name? How do you know my name?" she whispers, suddenly terrified. Because he could have been following her everywhere, watching her sleep and planting cameras in her office and her car and her bathroom, but somehow his knowing her name is what makes the whole thing real.

Doctor Who has been all about names lately, but I thought I'd use an example from a little further back.

"The Shakespeare Code" is one of my favorites.

Teenagers rebel by changing their names, or taking on nicknames.

In George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, there's a culture (and I sadly can't remember which one right now and I don't have a couple of years free at the moment to comb through the whole series to find what was probably just a casual reference to a random tradition) that doesn't give babies names until they turn two. Because even though they might love their children more than anything, the infant mortality rate is so high, and so the baby isn't considered really alive until it reaches its naming day.

Supervillains and superheroes alike put a ton of time and energy into protecting their secret identities, keeping their names to themselves and operating under a title instead. They tie everything they truly care about to that hidden name, and discovering it becomes the ultimate threat.

Expectant parents often say they don't really feel like the baby is real until they settle on a name.

And the idea isn't a new one either. You can go all the way back to the Old Testament for this. One of the first things God does after he creates Adam is have the man give a name to everything. (Regardless of your religion, I think we can all agree that the story itself has been around for an awfully long time.)

Names. Have. Power.

So of course naming things is hard. To name something is to give it life, to take control of its fate, and to seal its identity. People often describe writers as having set themselves up as gods of their own personal little universes. Well, if that's true, then I think naming things is probably the most godlike thing we do.

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