Writing Hacks: Many Names Are Better than One Perfect Name
Language is a technology. It’s a particularly strange one that’s made of squiggles and sounds and maps of meaning, but like any other technology, it’s hackable. So’s writing.
Here’s a trick for naming things.
Writing instructors often tell their students how important it is to give something the correct name. A great name can help get across character and tone. Just think of some of the great names from stories: Hermione Granger, Han Solo, Mary Poppins, Holly Golightly, Sherlock Holmes.
But what about characters who have more than one name, like everybody’s favorite dragon rider, Daenerys Targaryan/Dany/Daenerys Stormborn/Mother of Dragons/Khaleesi/Breaker of Chains.
What does this do? What are names anyway? The notion of a “perfect name” implies that each of us has some essential, never-changing self, but that isn’t how it feels to go through the world. There are parts of us that change over time. We’re different when we’re a child, when we’re a young adult, and when we grow into an adult.
We also change depending on who we’re with. When we’re with friends (Dany), warriors (Khaleesi), or subjects (Breaker of Chains).
Giving a character multiple names signals that they are dynamic. It also gives them an air of mystery. Are they all of these names or none of them? What are they hiding?
It can also reveal character. What does it say when they introduce themselves with a particular name, and what does it say about other characters based on the name they choose to use when addressing our character?
Different names can also create different effects. J. R. R. Tolkein, in his effort to carve out a mythological space for his characters, gave them a huge number of names, often based on the various languages of Middle Earth: Gandalf/Mithrandir/Tharkûn/Olórin/Gandalf Greyhame/Gandalf the Grey/The Grey Pilgrim/The White Rider/Gandalf the White.
George R.R. Martin wanted to create a more grounded world of gritty political machinations. The names of his characters reflect their lineage and political power in different spheres.
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