Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Kicking Ass and Taking on... Names

I'm fairly fond of the title for this post. The runner-up was Saltheart Foamfollower and Me, though, and I'm still not sure I chose right. Anyway, onwards.

Both of my evening plans fell through - one due to budget cuts, the other due to some kind of theatrical weirdness on my friend Alan's part - so I'm sitting at school and grading exit slips. My school has a wireless connection. Blogger isn't blocked by the school's firewall. It's off to the races with the Burning Zeppelin Experience, because I'm really not a very good teacher yet and grading exit slips without the occasional distraction is just depressing.

What's that, you say? Why don't I just go home and blog from there? That, my friend, would require a great deal more efficiency than this zeppelin burner has to his name (as I'm sure you've noticed), so a post from school is what you get today.

The question is, what am I going to write about?

I'm going to write about names.

A few years ago, I read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson. For the first book and a half of the series, I had no idea that these books were going to become one of the most intensely formative reads of my writing life. For me, there's a lot to love in this deeply controversial series, but what I want to focus on is that last sentence: "I had no idea..."

At first, the books turned me off. The biggest thing wasn't that the main character [REMOVED TO PREVENT SPOILERS] or even when he [ALSO REMOVED TO PREVENT SPOILERS]. Actually, what rubbed me the wrong way were the names. In the first book, the main character, Thomas Covenant, is transported to the Land, a strange fantasy world that contains such eccentric characters as...

Drool Rockworm.

Saltheart Foamfollower.

Lord Foul.

That last one is the series' main villain, also called by such subtle sobriquets as "Fangthane the Render." I'm going to pull that last one out for you: Fangthane the Render. Fang. Thane. the Render. Tribal lord of nasty sharp teeth, the tearer into little bits. That's not the least of it, of course. There are creatures called Viles, monsters called Ravers, and weirdos called the Elohim.

I think you can see why I was unimpressed. These names are frankly... well... goobery. They scream "this is an uncomplicated black and white fantasy about manly men (or possibly manly women), big swords, and bigger explosions."

My reaction here sums up the first reason names are important: names create expectations, and expectations guide experience. If you give your characters goobery fantasy names, your reader is going to react to them as though they are goobery fantasy characters. The same goes for pulpy space opera and serious literary fiction. Of course, some names create stronger expectations than others. If you call a character Ralph in a novel set in New York in 1987, people still don't know what to expect. The story could go any number of ways: is it a mystery, a dark urban fantasy, or a romance? No one knows! If he's Ralph the Barbarian and he hails from Bigswordia, now, everyone knows you're going for a fantasy pastiche.

But before you get too sold on the idea of giving every character the name she clearly deserves, let me tell you the rest of the story of Saltheart Foamfollower and me.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are the opposite of goobery. They are a dark, serious, and philosophical series of novels about love, death, evil, and innocence. As I read, I came to realize that the names weren't goobery or ill-chosen, they were selected with extreme care. You see, one of the points of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is innocence. The Land is innocent. Thomas Covenant was innocent, and to him - and more importantly, to us and to me - its names, societies, and conventions seem ridiculous. As I came to realize what a beautiful place the Land was, I started to feel bad that I couldn't just revel in the beautiful innocence of those ridiculous names... and then I understood how Thomas Covenant felt. I felt what Thomas Covenant felt, and that was brilliant.

So, as is true of most great truths of writing, the inverse is also true. Sometimes you need to give something the least likely name you can imagine... and reap the benefits.

For example, right now I'd give myself the ironic name "Productivitor." I'd better get back to grading and leave you all to contemplate my brilliance. See you later, Lord Ralph.

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