a rose by any other name

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I feel like I’ve been swamped by names lately.  Not by names themselves, but by references to the naming of things and by my own frustrations with naming the characters in my latest book.

Here’s some TV/music and literary references to names that I’ve been trying to get out of my head after seeing/reading them:

1. American Horror Story’s Second Season, Asylums, has a really annoying 10th episode where the nun who is stuck in the crazy house sings a song in her head “The Name Game,” in which everyone in the asylum joins in and sings with her.  She calls another character “Lana Banana” and I can’t get that out of my head – seriously, I keep hearing “LanaBananaLanaBananaLanaBanana” over and over.  (I’m thankful I’ve at least finished watching this season!!)

2.  The above example reminded me of one of my favorite movies/books of my childhood, Anne of Green Gables.  Anne was always a character I related to intensely, and I loved the way she talked about things (like names): “I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose would be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk-cabbage.”

3. Anne was referencing Shakespeare in her above comment.  The real quote was from the play Romeo and Juliet:

“What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet; “

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So what am I trying to say here—besides exorcising the demons in my head that keep repeating these phrases?

I suppose I am asking a few rhetorical questions:

How important ARE the names we choose for our characters?

How important are OUR NAMES to ourselves?

How do we come up with the kind of names that people never get tired of hearing—like Romeo and Juliet, or Anne with an “e”, or Frodo and Sam, or Harry and Hermione, or Luke and Leia Skywalker, or Mal, Inara, River, Kaylee and Jayne?

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The names within popular literature or TV/movies seem like they’ve existed forever, and the characters we imagine or see on the screen wouldn’t make sense if they had other names.

So HOW do writers come up with the perfect names?

And should we stress over it?

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The only answer I can really give here is, yes, I stress over names, but when I focus on the story, and try out a name for a while, I feel closer to the character.  Sometimes, I do change a name while editing, and for a long time that usually means I’m uncertain about WHO the character IS anymore—and sometimes I want to go back to the previous name, and sometimes I’m torn.

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I don’t think this ever gets easier for writers, even though some characters can have perfect names from the start.  Names are important.  Of course, they shouldn’t be a reason why Romeo and Juliet couldn’t be together, and they shouldn’t make us hate a character if we hate their name, but they have power, as in the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, and in the Earthsea novels by Ursula Le Guin, where things can be controlled when their true names are discovered.

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I’m sending this post out into cyberland as an ode to names and to the struggles we all have in the naming of things.

Good luck, and choose wisely.

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