Naming is powerful mojo. Hindu culture prescribes renaming children during outbreaks of diseases such as polio or fevers to confuse the evil spirits and protect the child from the illness. Catholics take a new middle name at confirmation to mark the start of their passage into spiritual adulthood. The Chinese believe that when you start a new part of your life that is drastically different from your old life (like immigrating to another country), that you should take a new first name to represent the new you and distinguish it from the old you. Many Voodoo spells require the name of the person to evoke the magic (good or bad) and tattooing the name of someone onto your body is considered powerful magic linking you with that person for eternity. Our literary traditions are full of examples of names as sources of power. Rumplestilskin, for example. The tradition of names associated with power can be found in every culture’s historical mythology.
As writers, we are confronted with thousands of word choices every time we sit down to tell our stories. This column will address a few of the more obvious, perhaps but less apparent choices you need to make when writing in an attempt to get you to ponder the power of words and language when you make not only the “important” word choices but all word choices in your craft.
The title is the first word choice your reader encounters. The title is a mini advertisement for the content of the story be it a short story or novel. As such it should reflect what the story is about. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use a title that encompasses a deeper meaning of the story, is symbolic, playful, or reveals a hidden element of the plot that a reader will only truly understand after having read the story.
When selecting a title try to capture the essence of the story. It is acceptable to use a play on words or draw on a cultural reference that relates to the story’s theme. But, avoid nondescript titles (“Janet’s Story”), overly long plot summary titles (“The day I met the girl of my dreams and we fell in love and she died”), or titles that are so witty that they are clich’s (“Sexathon” for the story of a lesbian runner involved in an orgy). Examine the titles of the books on your bookshelf and your favorite stories in anthologies. How do the titles capture the essence of or play with some of the key elements of the story? Which titles do you like the best and why?
Here are some of my titles:
Anonymous: Search for anonymous lesbian sex
How I ended up on my Back: First person tale of yes, you guest it
The Temple: long term couple sexually worshipping each other
Population of New York: a critical line from the story that has meaning after you read it
I always use a working title (WT) based on my initial premise of the story idea when I start a new story. Sometimes, the story goes somewhere other then what I had envisioned and the WT is no longer valid. Other times a better title emerges organically from the text of the story. Using a WT will help you focus or at the very least will be a place holder. The critical thing to remember is you can change the WT if needed as you write.
Baby name books are great sources for character names. While characters populate the worlds you create, readers also bring with them knowledge of the real world. Selecting names for characters can be one of the most taxing tasks for an author because names carry meaning and cultural context outside of your story. There are two sets of pitfalls within this fact. The first is a reliance on the cultural context and the second is ignoring it.
Ethnic Names:Do not depend on ethnic names in replace of building strong characters. Giving a character an ethnic name isn’t enough to make the character ethnic. Calling an African American character Yolanda isn’t enough to make her black, you still need to construct her character. Likewise, using the name Yolanda for a non-African American character evokes ethnic meaning from the world outside your story. This doesn’t mean you cannot do it, but be aware of this fact and use it within your text. Perhaps the Asian character is named Yolanda after an African-American woman who befriended her mother when she arrived in New York form China. Now the name has a deeper meaning in the context of the story and it adds value.
Made up Names: Within the genre of science fiction and fantasy stories, made up names are the rule. Lrarka, Jenquesta, Krynth, Kruel, etc. are used to enforce the setting be it middle earth or a planet far far away. They are used by authors to illustrate we aren’t in Kansas any more and for the most part made up names are expected by readers.
Historical Names: It is important to know when a name came into usage if you are writing historical stories. Some names have been in use since biblical times like Mary and Ruth while others are new like Tamika or Wendy. Don’t chance using a name in a historical story without checking its date of use first.
Culturally Marked or Famous Names: Jesus may be a common name in another country but will bring forth images of the Christian savior for most Western readers. Benedict Arnold is a traitor; unless you are British, then perhaps he is a hero. Edgar Allen will only evoke images of the writer Poe. These are all cultural or historical baggage associated with the names and in most cases not worth even attempting to override.
However, this baggage can work in your favor. In “Anonymous”, one of my characters is described as looking like James Dean and uses the drag name Jimmy. Because of this all of the cultural baggage associated with James Dean was pulled into my story, like it or not. I liked it and used it along with the name to my advantage in constructing the character and events. Be careful not to use the evoked cultural baggage instead of doing the work of constructing well rounded 3D characters, but feel free when appropriate to use it to enhance or play off of in a story. Don’t over use this technique or it will become stale quickly.
Meaningful Names: Many names have meanings. Mine, Amie, is beloved. The problem with selecting a character’s name based on the meaning of the name is that some readers will not know the meaning and others may invest too much weight in that meaning thinking they have “solved” the story line with that one piece of information. However, neither of these reasons should stop you. Be sure to embed enough meaning in the character development and plot items so that the reader can still find depth in the story line if they miss the meaning behind the name and cannot reduce your story down to the meaning of the character’s name.
Witty, Cute, or Symbolic Names: Names can embody characters’ strengths, weaknesses, or motivation. This works especially well in comedy, satire, mock morality tale, or fun reading. It can also work well in mysteries or homage pieces. Just do it with a light hand. Willy E. Ryder for a sexually notorious drag king works better than Sally Shallow for a self centered dyke. Be careful if you choose to employee this device. If it is not done well it looks terribly pedestrian.
If you place your story in a real location, say Boston’s Back Bay or State College, PA, or New Orleans’ French Quarter than you are obligated to use real street names and if at all possible real places. Creating businesses or homes is one thing, but folks who live or are familiar with the area will notice if you make up street names or invent infrastructure, for example an underground subway in the heart of the French Quarter. what’s most important is readers may become distracted from your story by the incorrect details of a familiar place. Whether you learn a city first hand or from a travel book, what’s great about placing a story in an existing environment is you can simply describe what you already know is there.
You also have the option to make up places. Invent entire towns or cities if you like. Just be sure to make the town fit into the landscape you are placing it. For example, Coldwater, WV, from my story “The Coal Miner’s Other Daughter” doesn’t exist. It is however, the embodiment of everything I know about coalmining towns in WV. If I were to add, for example, an ocean or rain forest to the place it would destroy the illusion I have created. Coldwater works because it could be in WV. Gotham City in Batman is a great example of this. It embodies everything that New York City is but allows the author to do whatever he wants because it is not New York City.
Remember as a writer every word you select has meaning and matters. You are in control of language. Controlling language, as we know, lets us control how people formulate ideas. A great example of controlling language is Orwell’s 1984. In his futuristic novel, Orwell imagines a world in which the meaning for any words that express freedom have been altered thus removing the ability for people to express or conceptualize the idea of freedom. In our own lives we can draw on a number of examples from the political realm of the power of controlling language. The most vivid and easy to understand, I think comes form the Pro-Choice/Pro-Life movements’ war for control of naming in the early 1990s. Regardless of where you stand on the abortion issue, stop for a minute and consider linguistically the images the two sets of titles evoke: Pro-Life vs. Anti-Choice andPro-Choice vs. Anti-Life or Pro-Abortion. Consider that Pro- means for and Anti- means against. Consider that the words Life and Choice are non specific words covering a lot of territory while Abortion is clearly defined by a closed set of activities. If we remove these terms from the context of the political and moral debate they are associated with, and who would say they were anti-life or anti-choice? However, anti-abortion and Pro-abortion removed from the political context are clearly defined and for the most part self contained.
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Amie M. Evans
“Two Girls Kissing: Writing Lesbian Literary Erotica” © 2006 Amie M. Evans. All rights reserved.