Alias

There is a character in Brimstone Angels, who tested my patience, readers: he steadfastly refused all of my attempts at naming him.

In my initial notes, this character was called Mallok. He was the clear and obvious human villain of what would become Brimstone Angels. Mallok sounds like a good, cackly evil name, wouldn’t you agree? Unfortunately as the story went on, I didn’t need a cackler. I needed someone who flew under the radar. Someone unassuming.

“Mallok” therefore fractured into a quartet of characters by the first draft—four Ashmadai who’d formed their own cliquey little cell. Lector, the high priest, Sekata, the droll one, Imarella, the bitchy one, and …Tishor.

Tishor, in my defense, had a lovely meaning. In Swahili, I think (at this point I don’t recall). He was the last one I named, despite being the only one of the four with a POV, and his name—I realized by the end of the book—is terrible. It sounds soft and ineffective. It sounds like tissue or trash. It doesn’t convey the slightest bit of substance.

And Tishor, sadly, didn’t either. One of my notes was to cut any POV wasn’t critical from the first third of the book to the end. My editor wanted me to find a way to cut him in particular, but I needed him for other reasons. To that end, Tishor needed to become a much stronger part of the story. So he definitely needed a new name.

Wiktionary had done all it could and gotten me very little in this character’s case. While Lector and Sekata had gotten their names from words I felt I could associate with cults, I was scraping the barrel for one more.

Time for a new tactic. I’d had some luck naming characters by finding plants or animals that embody some characteristic and raiding their genus and species names. Brother Anthus, for example, is named for a kind of bird, Anthus pratensis, which is frequently subject to the predations of cuckoos—they lay their eggs in the nests of the Anthus and leave the poor smaller birds to care for this monstrous hatchling which is bound to suck up all their resources. Perfect for a scholar being secretly manipulated by monstrous forces.

So this character—he seems nice, but the reader knows there’s more going on. There are plenty of plants that you have to prepare a special way or only eat certain parts of, and if you don’t, they’re terribly poisonous. I raid poisonous plant lists. I skulk through Wikipedia. I find a lot of silly words. I twist them around. I find “Kematus.”

I love this name for approximately two days.

It sounds like a name—it has that going for it. But it’s a pompous name, a name which thinks highly of itself, and this character is a mild-mannered shopkeeper, who happens to also be a member of a bloodthirsty sect of devil-worshipers. If anyone’s a Kematus, it’s Lector, who’s a total windbag. But he’s not a poisonous plant. He’s a bombastic lector.

I try other species—vipers, platypuses (hey they’re unassuming and deadly!), butterflies—nothing fits. I need a new tactic.

Mythological characters, used thoughtfully, can maybe work. They get overused a lot, but I’m desperate enough to try. I search for a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a character who seems good but has a core of wickedness.

“Lucifer” is so obvious it makes my teeth hurt. But what about…Luc? Or maybe Louc, since this is a fantasy world, and people can get a little fussy about seeing names they recognize. Louc. I like it. It sounds simple. Charming. Not slimy-charming. People-person charming. Still, if you met a Luc and he turned out to be some sort of arms dealer, you’d be less surprised than if his name were Archie or something. It’s a name that changes alliances. It’s perfect.

And then I write it down on a POV outline. Right beside “Lorcan,” which is already the name of one of my major characters.

Louc. Lorcan.

Now I say a string of curse words I’ve been advised not to type out, lest my laptop burst into flames.

DO NOT—EVER!*—NAME TWO MAJOR CHARACTERS THINGS WHICH START WITH THE SAME LETTER! ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE WRITING A FANTASY NOVEL!

You may believe that every one of your character’s names rolls off the tongue, is resonant and exquisite, and you will have legions of fans naming their firstborns after your protagonist. You might.

But in reality 99% of your names blip through as “F-name,” “L-name,” and so on. Even your editor who is championing your book and scrutinizing every word is doing this. I know because I had meetings with co-editors and we actually ended up calling the characters things like “J-man” and “A-dude.”** If they have the same first letter, at some point people are going to mix them up. If they have the same first two letters, they will mix them up and think you are trying to “say something.” If they have three letters in three places in common, they will think you are just being mean.

So Louc must go to the name graveyard with Mallok, Tishor, and Kematus. At least it has company.

But my character still doesn’t have a name. I have a list of all the characters in Brimstone Angels and I pick out the free letters. I start raiding acquaintances for names—hey, if it can’t have a universal meaning, it can have a personal one. It happens that my sister’s [expletive] ex, Noah, is on my mind, and I massage his name into “Nhole.” Like “Louc” it’s short and direct. It sounds like a name. And I won’t feel bad about what happens to this guy.

Then the Husband sees it on paper. “Who’s ‘en-hole’?” he asks.

I look at the name with new eyes. It totally says N-hole. Which is sort of funny, but…wow, that’s going to be distracting. There aren’t really English words that put an ‘n’ beside an ‘h.’ It’s a voiced consonant, but not one that usually gets explicitly aspirated.

At this point, I stomp around the room and say more curse words. I just need a name. Frankly, I just want one of my old names to have worked.

So I jump on a baby names site. I search for single syllable names that start with my free letters and originate in Romance languages. I get a short list. I hate them all. I weed and winnow. I decide on Yvon.

The Husband says it sounds like his great-aunt’s name, Yvonne.

I tell him to go to hell. I’m done with names.

*If you can help it. In shared-world, you sometimes don’t have a choice. I think the best (worst) example of this has to be the Twilight War trilogy, wherein Paul S. Kemp had a character called Riven and a character called Rivalen, and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it.

**This is better than the alternative. My writing group has pronounced Farideh, “Fair-a-DAH;” Lorcan “Lore-CAN”; and Mehen “MEE-hin.” I want to tear my ears off when I hear this.*** and I squirm to think this is what they might hear in their heads.

***Fah-ree-duh, Lore-kin, Muh-hen

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One Response to Alias

  1. Why not watch a hockey game and pull a name off one of the player’s jerseys? Or from the NFL, whatever sport tickles your fancy…. make the spelling phonectic and off you go.

    http://www.nhl.com/ice/playersearch.htm?letter=A