Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Weird Aside: Names

This post isn't exactly going to be another fountain of joyful geekiness, so if that's all you really want to hear me talk about, you might want to skip this entry. It deals with one of my own guilty little cerebral pleasures, so if that's not your cup of tea, feel free to move on. I will probably mention a couple of geeky things in passing, but that's about as far as I'll go on the geek front. I might do these posts every so often, but don't worry, this blog will always be first and foremost about geeky or unusual media and things!

So, here it is: I have this thing with names. Whether it's thinking about what to call the next character in a story I'm writing or daydreaming about what I'll name any kids I might one day have, I can get a little obsessive about names. I love finding new names to add to the list I currently have going on my computer, divided into potential female characters' names, potential male characters' names, potential names for any future children, and names I've already used. I love it  For me, a name is big part of who a person is, whether they are real or fictional. In this vein, I also have a bit of a fascination for weird, geeky, or just plain horrible names.

I think this fascination stems from my passionate hatred of my own name. When I was born, my mom had to have an emergency C-section, and while she was still conked out from the anesthesia, my dad  was given the task of naming me. They'd picked out names for me in advance, so this should have been relatively straightforward. Unfortunately, as with so many things in my family, it was not. I should have been named Claire (sadly another name I would almost certainly have not liked), but was instead given a name neither of my parents had ever discussed: Ellen. In my opinion, this is even worse than Claire.

Sure, "Ellen" has a nice meaning- it's derived from the name Helen, which means a torch or a light, but that's about it. It may be a respectable name one could picture on a business card, which is nice, but it's a little too respectable. Like someone's great-great aunt respectable. I'm not a great-great aunt- I can't even legally drink yet. I can't even abbreviate my respectable name to something fun and age-appropriate for use with friends. There isn't a whole heck of a lot you can do with just five letters, after all.

I'm not the only Ellen who feels this way about the name. During my brief stint in a food service job my first year of college, I met a coworker with the same name as me. She was not my age. In fact, she was closer in age to my parents. When she found out what my name was, she apologized to me on behalf of my parents for my name. I'm not making this up. Pinky swear.

Was I embarrassed? Was I hurt? Was I angry? No. I was thankful. Even though I didn't know her, I knew that she understood what it was like to be burdened with a name completely inappropriate to one's time period, with a name no self-respecting parent should name any child born after 1892. She understood what it was like to be an Ellen.

I know, I know. You're going to say that I should stop whining and just get my name changed. And guess what: I am. So there. But until this coming spring, I'm stuck as an Ellen. I just think it would be a bit of a weight off of my shoulders, to have a name I could be proud of, one that is both professional and able to be shortened into a variety of forms for more casual use. And my parents and friends support me on this, too, so I'm not ruffling any feathers or hurting any feelings.

But to get to the geekery (if there is any to be found in this post): to me, when I create or am introduced to a character, their name is really important me. Names define us, whether we like it or not, and they can have a profound effect on our lives. I love world building and character creation when I write, and choosing the perfect names for my characters is really important to me. They don't seem like real people until they have that name, like an anchor or a binding point tying all of the information about them into a single, complex package: this is X and everything about him/her.

Often, a character's name and/or their title is one of the first things we know about them. This name can tell us whether this character is a male or a female, what culture they belong to, what time period they're from, perhaps a special attribute or trait they're known for, or even what species they are. Granted, not all names do this, and some characters are never actually named in their stories (the main character from Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca jumps to mind), but many names do answer these questions.

Some authors, like Tolkien, go far enough to weave their character's names and naming traditions and conventions into the mythology and languages of the worlds they create, which is like literary double-chocolate cake to me- not only do these names have meanings, but they have meanings in the context of the world in which they are set.

I also love it when authors go far enough to research the origins and meanings of the names they choose for their characters. It just contributes to that Done Their Research feel, and these small details can make the story even better, especially in cases of historical fiction where an anachronistic spelling or even an entirely anachronistic name can become a niggling annoyance when reading/watching the piece (or at least it can if you're as nit-picky about this as I can be).

Another thing I love (and love to do in my own stuff) is when authors use their character's names to denote familial ties or social class. I feel it gives an extra layer to the characters' backgrounds when you can tell just by their name that they're part of a family of influential bankers, or that they grew up on one of the lower rungs of the social ladder. Why? Because it's not just me who would be noticing this, but the other characters as well, which would likely affect how they would perceive this person and interact with him/her, adding extra depth to their interactions and the story as a whole. Layers!

Unfortunately, this preoccupation with names can sometimes color my enjoyment of a work or a piece of a work if a name is patently ridiculous or ill-fitting, even by the standards of the world in which it's set (cough cough Albus Severus cough cough), no matter how much I love the book/movie/show/whatever. And if a name is particularly anvilicious in its meaning (Her name means pretty! She is the desirable heroine and everyone loves her and her life is going to turn out perfectly! or alternately His name contains something obviously meaning dark or evil! He is a villain! You must hate him on sight!), it can even spoil some of the plot.

Anyway, that's my little rant on names. Back to the glorious, glorious geekery!

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