the name’s the thing

Well, so I’ve talked about linguistics, now I guess it’s time to talk about names. Or rather, how names matter. This time, we’ll be scrutinizing Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

When I was in middle school I bragged about reading the dictionary for fun, I think mostly to establish my nerd cred. A sham, naturally. I think I was still mainlining EragonRedwallArtemis Fowl, and Harry Potter instead of actually studying anything. (Probably reading the books under my desk, too. Actually I think I did get in trouble for that in my ninth grade biology class. Whoops.) But the dictionary my parents have – not the huge, unabridged, old one with pages so yellowed they’re orange, but the slightly new-ish one with the gray cover – has a section in the back with male and female names, alphabetized, and their name meanings, and that I did read.

Buddy, that name section of the dictionary was like heroin for my little developing writer brain. I went on a streak, in middle school, where I spent nearly every day after school feverishly typing at my dad’s old Dell desktop, and I crammed it full of half-finished drafts with heroes called Danae and Romulus and all sorts of things. I’ve posted a few of those half-finished ideas before – I don’t have any of the files saved, un/happily, but some of them stuck in my brain quite vividly. Rest in peace, Tess and James, my Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off. I’ll never forget how I had one of you climb up to the crow’s nest of the ship and then jump off and land on the main deck, upright, without breaking a single bone in your body. Truly it was a miracle of illogic.

Anyway! Even if you don’t painstakingly curate the names of your characters the way twelve-year-old me did, the names of characters matter. A Jim and a James and a Jamie might have the same base name, but James is more formal, and Jamie is more gender neutral, and Jim is solidly masculine, possibly even lumberjack-like.

And if a character goes by James, but his mom keeps calling him Jamie even after he’s repeatedly asked her not to, that right there matters – especially if the author treats that as a symptom of a bigger plot point. A coming-of-age story is the first thing that comes to my mind with that example. But there are any number of other possibilities you could explore.

And when a character changes their name … or someone else gives them a new name … then it gets even more interesting.

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