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By Any Other Name

commentary by Jude-Marie Green, Co-Editor of 10Flash Quarterly

Paul Atreides.

How does one even pronounce that? Or “Maud’dib”?

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet — but how would we pronounce it? Once we name it, we own it, and its story joins the collective. We know who Paul Atreides is, even if we debate on how to say the Latinized Greek of his name (or the Latinized Arabic of his Fremen name.)

Elton John (singer/entertainer, big glasses!) wrote A Candle In The Wind orginally for Marilyn, then rewrote it for Diana. Those are all very well-known names; we know who they are, their public personas, and a bit of their tragedies just from their names.

Character names serve the same function. They give us an immediate frisson of understanding. While some names have earned certain associations: “He’s such a Romeo!” others have always had the character attributes: “He’s a regular Joe,” because Joe is such a sturdy, predictable, regular kind of name.

That’s the glory of character names!

Jay Lake’s story in this issue, In the Green Jungles of Envy, contains nameless characters who are identified as a certain type by where their names, whatever those might be, can be seen: on the side of a building, on the door. The only named characters are anonymously grouped as “Jesus or Jose.” Group named and still identity-stripped and even more secretive and hidden by the use of duct tape over their name badges. This was a brilliant bit of character theater. The reader knows them and infuses them with motive and personality by their very anonymity.

Characters struggle against anonymity.

“I am not a number, I am a free man!”  — The Prisoner

“They’ve given you a number, and taken away your name” —Secret Agent Man

Because the names define us and limit us and tell half the story there in just a few syllables and letters.

Great movie character names: Can we forget Zardoz? We might want to forget Sean Connery’s role, but can we forget that name and its genesis? Ripley, a role originally assigned to a male character; as was Salt from the recent Angelina Jolie vehicle. In that guy kind of way, the characters are referenced by last name. Only if you pay attention do you know Ripley’s first name is Ellen.

This is the power of naming.

There are nine and sixty ways of writing the name “Mohamed,” and every single one of them is right. Hsiao, Xiao, Chau, all are different cultures and all pronounced the same. All indicate different

characters all together!

The rule of thumb in fiction is: strange story, ordinary names (think Philip K Dick.) Straightforward story, use unusual character names to propel interest (Jirel of Joiry, anyone?) And of course, characters’ names should break the rules (see: Ripley and Salt and A Boy Named Sue.) Because at the end of it all, the reader wants the rules to be broken, as long as the pieces all fit together in the end.

[Return to the February 2011 main page]

One Response

  1. […] Sandra Odell is with us, too, with the first of a two-part review of SF podcasts — Do You Hear What I Hear? And Jude-Marie examines the power of names in By Any Other Name. […]

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