“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I teach Romeo and Juliet to rather reluctant 8th graders every year. I’ve collected enough materials to probably teach a college course on the play, but no matter what every year we pause at Juliet’s words here and talk about the power of names. I ask them to think about it. How much of their personality is connected to their names? Is Juliet right? Can we simply change someone’s name without it changing the person? My students and I don’t think so.
Look deeply into any mythology, particularly the mythology involving the Norse and Celts and we see the power of names so clearly. The Fae of the Celtic mythos kept their true names secret for if anyone knew their names they could be commanded. In Ursula K. LeGuin’s EarthSea series we see power tied to true names. Native Americans changed their names as they grew, preferring to refer to them as “use names” in some tribes. We too, in modern Western culture, change our names. How many of us cringe when we hear grandma call us by that nickname she gave us when we were little bits? I have a cousin who’s over 30 who many in the family still call “Juice.” Long story.
As authors, we know that the name of a character can be a very powerful characterization vehicle. Certain names have certain connotations. If we name a character Damien, there are certain images that go right along. Now, sometimes we like to throw those preconceptions for a loop, but we go into naming that character knowing he’s going to be up against some interesting preconceived notions. Character names also have to be true to the genre and time period. There’s nothing that throws me out of a book than a trendy modern name in a period piece. Above all, we need to like the name. If we don’t like the name or we don’t really see how the name fits the character, well then we can’t make our readers see it either.
Naming books too is an interesting and frustrating process. Just as a character’s moniker is the reader’s first impression of him or her, the title can very often make or break a sale. There are a lot of “rules” about titles. Many of them contradictory. Titles should only have six or fewer syllables—the shorter the title the more intriguing. Now, I admit you don’t want a title that scrolls across the entire book cover, but I don’t personally see anything wrong with longer titles. That being said, could “The Fellowship of the Ring” gotten a pass in today’s marketing world? Or would Tolkien have been told to shorten it up or at least “punch it up?” I’ve heard that a lot lately too. “Punch up that title!” What in heaven’s name does that actually mean? Make it shorter, catchier, or easier to remember?
I struggle with titles. My first novel “Ribbons of Moonlight,” a time travel romance was easy to name. It was inspired by a poem and the title was merely a rearranging of one of the common poetic images. That was a rare exception. When I’m writing a book, the file usually has some sort of single word working title. My next book, a fantasy, “The Shattered Prism” due out on June 17th from Solstice Publishing, was much more difficult to title. It had originally been called “Dark Rainbow’s End,” but I’d expanded the idea and it transformed from one novel into a trilogy. So, now, not only did I need three titles, I needed three titles that worked together and I already had one. I scribbled and scratched out about a dozen title ideas with rainbow or circle or star imagery in them. The book was finished, ready to be sent out, but I couldn’t because I wasn’t certain of the title! That’s one of the most frustrating feelings for a writer.
Unlike Juliet’s assertion that “Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, retain that dear perfection that he owes”, naming characters and books can be tricky. Coming up with the idea of the story, the problems the characters need to face and the end of it all can sometimes be child’s play compared to figuring out what to call the thing! Names and titles are a reader’s first impression and we all know that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.
Guest Blogger Bio
When I was a kid growing up in the near Chicago suburbs, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to teach and I wanted to write. I’d spend hours over the little typewriter Mom and Dad bought for me when I was little, clattering away at stories and plays I’d wheedle my cousins and brother into performing. I think I wrote my first “book” in 6th grade and had a friend illustrate it for me. I never really looked back from there.
Now, I can say that I’ve achieved both of my goals. I’ve been teaching 8th graders for more than 15 years, sharing my love of words with hundreds. I always tell my kids that it’s not that they don’t like to read; they just haven’t met the right book yet. I make it one of my missions in life to put those books into their hands.
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