The Power of Names

I think often on the power of words, but recently I’ve really focused on the power of names. In my story on Hurskfjell, almost everyone has a name. There are few characters referred to as “Guard #2,” or “The Bartender.” Often in fantasy and sci fi there are bit part characters that jump on and off screen and then disappear, and we just don’t care to name them. A friend of mine commented while reading my story it felt I was throwing in names just to throw them in. I suppose in a sense I was. But it does something else when the story is read.

Primarily I have been thinking about it because of Game of Thrones. Everyone has a name. I’ve only gotten through one book so far, but it struck me deep how everyone was named. Sure you didn’t remember even half of them, and a few you suddenly start seeing over and over again and think, this guy might matter in the future. But the girl leading Catelyn to the Eyrie was named River. I don’t remember her first name, but what struck me as soon as I read her name was she’s a bastard. Catelyn knew it, as she got all rigid and indignant. But Martin didn’t need to tell me this girl was a bastard. In one word, with a last name, Martin told me everything I needed to know about this child. I related her to Jon Snow in an instant. There was a tragic story behind this girl and I felt for her because she had a name. In the end, she leads Catelyn up the path and we don’t see her again for the rest of the book.

I hope she doesn’t show up again. I know the inn keeper won’t, the one hung. The inn keeper that had eaten berries which died her teeth red. She showed up for such a brief period of time, but instead of “The Inn Keeper,” she was given traits. She existed. We could feel for her because there was a back story for this lady who might have had a handful of lines. This is the power of names and of giving insignificant characters a few important traits. Ever wonder why everyone reads Martin? It’s not just his immensely intricate plots. It’s because every insignificant character in that story is significant. Every character truly exists. There are no NPCs in the way fantasy and sci fi has portrayed them in the past.

My friend loved Game of Thrones and was making a great deal of headway in Clash of Kings. When she made the comment about me giving names to give names, I asked her to pay attention to what Martin did. She was still in Game of Thrones, but the next time she read it she watched for names. She looked into their uses. Despite not being an English major (why would anyone choose anything other than English), she saw what I was going for. Now, obviously if my name dropping is jarring in comparison to Martin, that is an issue, though I can’t imagine how I could possibly drop more random names in a paragraph than he does.

Now in The Devotion of Kelst and Ayne, I did not do this. There are a lot of NPCs. The focus is Kelst and Ayne, their love, the actions and consequences there of. They have kids, but by the end you know pretty much nothing about their children. They aren’t that important aside from the two eldest. There are numerous traveling people that are in and out, and I really just didn’t care to name them. I hadn’t read Game of Thrones yet, so it wasn’t really an influence. To be entirely honest, the book comes a lot from personal experiences. I’ve killed the undead. I’ve had to flee in exile from a mad pope. My life has been exciting. Okay, so maybe not those parts, but the love between Kelst and Ayne, the actions committed, are very based on a relationship, both the incredible love and the really horrible fights. No one knows how to set you off like the person who knows everything about you.  Buy the book. Out in hopefully three months. And end shameless plug.

Try to name your characters, no matter how important. Give them a few unique features. Make them memorable and loved in a paragraph or less. Then do what Martin does and slit their throat, have them fall to their death, or maybe for variety use a baby alligator.

What are your thoughts on the power of names in making characters real, as well as giving them back story?

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3 responses to “The Power of Names

  1. When picking out character names, I consider how readers will pronouce it. Will it be cumbersome or intuitive? Can readers remember it after they close the book? Can I type it over and over again for 75,000 words of story?

    Btw, Hurskfjell is a great word. Love it!

  2. I think I have mentioned this in the past, but I want to be able to answer questions about ANY of my characters. While I am writing (and I too name almost every character) I try to figure out why this person is where they are. My wife often asks me about random characters, just to keep me on my toes.

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