Thursday, June 30, 2005

Naming Names

As already mentioned, I put a lot of thought and sometimes work into naming characters. I'm not sure why this is, but it may have to do with the fact that I've always found my own name rather dull. Now, I love my parents more than I ever would have believed possible when I was a teenager, but when it came to naming me they got lazy. Really lazy. My father's name, you see, is John David Schwartz, and I am David John. Really. Just imagine the hours of thought they put into that.

(Actually, perhaps they did put hours of thought into it before throwing up their hands and deciding to just turn Dad's names around and be done with it.)

So I always preferred nicknames. I started out simple; I encouraged people to call me Dave. David, to me, seemed like a kid who wore a suit to school and raised his hand every time the teacher asked a question, and I would rather be Dave. Dave didn't take everything quite so seriously. He was sarcastic and lazy. (Lazy was cool when I was a kid.) Years later in college, I shared my name with a roommate who preferred to be called David. Dave, he said, was a slacker surfer guy who never accomplished anything. Sometimes, names cast light on self-image, it seems.

In elementary school I received nicknames I didn't want, as I suppose we all did. "Shorts" or "Undershorts" were the most popular ones. (This was long before Spaceballs came out and changed forever the approach to teasing kids named Schwartz.) In sixth grade a girl I was crushing on started calling me Davy Crockett, and I pretended to be annoyed.

It was in high school that the nicknaming really took off. At various times I was called Schwartzbauer (after the jam), Schmeltbauer (a corruption of the first, with a small fish attached), Schmeltie (the diminutive), Sheep Boy (a not-entirely-descriptive attempt to distinguish me by the fuzzy blond hair on my legs), Shaggy (a not-entirely-flattering reference to my wispy adolescent chin hair), the Dalai Lama (from Ty Eggenberger, who said I was the spiritual leader of Henry Sibley High School), Moon Unit (from Keith Rutman, who thought I was at least as odd as the Zappas), and Plastic Man (I have a stretchy face). I was partial to Schmeltbauer, by the way. I also made misguided attempts to give myself nicknames. DJ was one. Davis, too. (For a while I fully intended to publish all my best-selling novels under the name David Davis.) Those didn't work out too well.

Once I got to college the nicknaming tapered off. Freshman year I roomed with another Dave (not the same one as above), and we were christened Bass Dave and Drummer Dave for the instruments we used to hammer on when we were bored. Bran Harvey started calling me Astro Boy when he found out I wrote science fiction (except I don't, really). At Odyssey I became "Dances on Chairs," and the Buffistas christened me Knut the Difficult (read the FAQ). But "adults" don't get nicknames, not really, unless they give them to themselves, and we all know how badly that can go.

So, I am pretty much stuck with my mundane name. It's all right--you could do worse than a name that means "beloved"--but there are more interesting names, and I like to use them in stories. Names like King Zero and Ear Aillig and Mumpoker, or Princess Nasty and Carolina Dakota and Mr. Snorkel. (And yes, I am using or have used all of these. Please be nice.) In more subtle stories you have to be careful not to let the names distract, but I still like to set up patterns and relationships that exist outside of the story itself.

What does this mean? I suppose it means that I believe that names have power, on some level. In this country we rarely choose names for their meanings, since we're a polyglot, set adrift from the origins of things. Parents choose names from other languages for the way they sound or for their alliterative qualities. And when someone is given a name with meaning on the surface--Sunshine, for instance, or Hunter--we tend to look skeptically at the folks doing the giving. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live in a culture where everyone knows what your name means, because it's a word they use every day. I find the idea of name as epithet--or of a childhood name which is replaced, upon reaching adulthood, with one descriptive of one's personality or accomplishments--very appealing, but we don't do that in my tribe. So, I play with names where I can.

What about the rest of y'all? What's your least or most favorite nickname? Do you like to play with names in stories?

11 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Huh. I've been meaning to post about names for ages now without ever quite doing so. Please return my brain when you're done with it, kthanx.

I've never had a nickname that's stuck. My dad's a Christopher-not-Chris and has admitted that they intentionally gave my sister and me unnicknameable names. I've had two friends who steadily called me Banana, and I was Wolfram--from the middle name--to a third, for a while. And that's it. Except that one or two people actually do call me Killer. I'm not sure if that counts: picking your own nickname is cheating. But it makes me unreasonably happy, getting to choose what I'm called, even (especially) if the thing I chose is utterly inappropriate.

Like naming characters, yes. I like to ponder how people define themselves and how they ought to (or ought not) be defined. I like to get to use all the names that I'll never have pets enough to use. The right name is to a character the way that the right title is to a story. (I like titles, too.)

-H

5:01 PM  
Anonymous DavidS said...

As a fellow David (but never a Dave) I've had a nickname at almost every stage of my life. Hec for the Buffistas (with infinite variation on that).

In high school and college I was called Rock and that name was so deeply entrenched into my identity that those friends never call me David and start giggling at the notion that I would even be a David.

Of course, now I'm in the oh-so-tricky zone of thinking of potential baby names with JZ. We're not hitting on a lot of commonality, especially with boy names. She favors the kind of boy name that evokes a prissy anglophile and fulltime playground target.

6:47 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

I hate real names! I prefer to stay pseudonymous, because if I were to use my real name, somebody might mail me bad books.

(Oh, er, were we talking about something else?)

-- Straight Guy In Pink Shirt

8:47 PM  
Blogger Celia said...

I have characters who are never named. More than that, I have characters who have no name--it's not that I didn't use the name in the story, it's that her only name is Starfish Girl, even in my head. Hmm. Come to think of it, of the two stories I've sold, I don't consider either main character to have a name--I named the girl in Red Sky simply because it confused people for her not to be named. (and thus when i did name her, it's a joke I don't require people to get.)

My dad was born David. When he was 7, Davy Crockett came out, and rather than be called Davy, he changed his name to Ben. My youngest full brother changed his last name when he was 7. I waited until 7th grade, but I have friends who call me Casey (K-C, Cassy), as I'd changed my name briefly to Cassandra because I'm not overly fond of sharing a name with a dirty song. I've also been called Cam, which is my intials, by a friend who convinced her boyfriend I had a cousin named Cam. He never caught on. He wasn't the smartest.

These days, I just go by Celia because it's more convienent, until I have to stop people from fighting over what my real name is. But at least Celia is spelled correctly, usually. I should tell you a story about my name in Italian and the island of Sciliy. It'll make Killer laugh soda out her nose, which is one of my new goals in life, mostly because it's so achievable.

1:23 AM  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

My given name's actually Alasdair, but I'm so not a kilted teuchter with a big ginger beard that I'm almost entirely known as Al except to close family. I was Ali for about a year in primary school, then Ali Bongo (a crappy magician on UK kid's TV) then just Bongo (which got to be the bane of my life as I was followed through high school by a chorus of voices singing the jingle from an advert for a drink called Um Bongo... and, oh, how I dreamed of chickenwire garottes). I occassionally get called Al-heister by one mate, which is kinda cool.

Weirdly enough Al is, I think, as much a derivation of Hal as it is of Alasdair. Hal was adopted for publication in an anthology that had another Alasdair Duncan in it, because a) it seemed more international a la Hal Hartley and b) I had a character named Halcyon in an early short story c) Shakespeare's Prince Hal always struck me as a cool role model -- a waster with hidden ambition. The Glasgow writer's group I'm in, with some small degree of amusement, asked if I was to be known as Hal from now on, I said "nah", but somehow Al came up as a logical compromise. It fits me as a person -- a wee bit Al Bundy in my general slovenliness, a wee bit Al Pacino when I kick off on a good rant -- but I stuck with the Hal for writing as it seems to fit my more serious writerly side. [bad pun alert] Hal, I like to say, is just Al with extra aspiration [bad pun alert over].

I obssess over character names too, and because a lot of the characters in my work are meant to be avatars of archetypes (id, shadow, superego, self, etc.) many have both "real" names and sorta punky code names (Jack Carter aka Jack Flash, Josef Pechorin aka Joey Narcosis, Guy Reynard aka Guy Fox, Thomas Messenger aka Fast Puck, Phreedom Messenger aka Princess Anaesthesia). Generally there's about three references and / or puns per name.

8:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, ah, what's the story behind snurri?

PamM comes from my grade school days when there was two or three Pams in the same class room so I was Pam M. At that time, M stood for Marcum, which I now use as my middle name.

pnew8=pennyweight

AnotherSocialist was suppose to be Another Byzantium Socialist, which I was going to title my website. One day it will happen. Maybe.

I've gone by various aliases in various places online, mostly chatrooms, mostly AmeliaK. I've published under Amelia Kay. I am rather fond of Miss Leah Lemon.

A number of male co-workers call me Pammy Sue, which comes out musically, not much different from Buddy Holly's Peggy Sue.

I've been called Red more than once, but since that was my dad's nickname, it never felt right.

Character names are really important (to me) in fiction, but sometimes, it takes awhile to identify what a character's name is when I'm writing. It's not unusually for me to not find the perfect name and leave the character nameless. Especially when what the character is going through is more important than the fact that they are an individual. The sort of universal representation of 'he' or 'she'.

PamM

1:17 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Hannah:

I like titles, too, but they're harder.

And I really can't think of you as "Killer." Particularly since I already use that nickname for my buddy Kiljoong.

Hec:

I have to admit that the idea of you as Rock makes me giggle a bit. No offense! And why, pray tell, does JZ want your son (Wallace? Sylvester?) to be beaten upon?

Straight Guy in Pink Shirt:

I'm sorry, I can't hear you, I'm busy reinventing the wheel with my new movement. I'm calling it "Men Who Like to Read Themselves Talking."

Celia:

I've done that too, the no-name protag. (The Twenty Epics story is one. So is The Lethe Man.)

Which dirty song is that again?

Hal:

I dig the punky code names. Are those from Vellum? (I pre-ordered a copy from Amazon UK, but it won't get here until mid-August. Dammit.)

Pam:

Byzantium Socialist, eh? I like that.

Snurri is a slight corruption of Snorri, for Snorri Sturluson, the guy who wrote down the Eddas as well as a few sagas, got involved in politics and was murdered at the King of Norway's behest on September 22 (my birthday), 1241. For a while I had a role-playing character named Snurri Icebreaker, and I just kind of kept the name.

2:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes the titles are hard. Sometimes the titles are easy and the stories are hard.

I wouldn't actually insist that anyone call me Killer. Because it's ridiculous. But I like having a nickname, even a ridiculous one (which works, too, as an answer for do-I-mind-being-called-'kid'?).

- H

8:00 PM  
Blogger Celia said...

Actually, now that I think of it, I do have one person who calls me Red. And my dad calls me Puppy, instead of, you know, Princess and other names like that.

11:50 PM  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

From Vellum and / or Ink. More Ink, I'm afraid. But if ye think mid-August is a while to wait, man, even the start of August seems an eternity away for me. :)

6:25 AM  
Blogger brando said...

You'll always be Astro Boy to me, Schmeltbauer.

11:16 AM  

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