NaNoWriMo: Names as signals

In our previous post on naming characters in historical fiction, we illustrated different positions authors can take on the spectrum from wholly authentic to wholly accessible, and while we don’t want to say that one place on the spectrum is better than another, we did conclude with the observation that “The most important thing is not which option is chosen, but that whichever option is chosen, it is followed uniformly and consistently!”

In this post, we’re going to contradict that advice! First, let’s talk about some of the roles that personal names can fill.

First and foremost, the role of a name is to designate or refer, to uniquely pick out a character in the reader’s mind. This referential role is one reason why, despite how authentic it might be, you don’t necessarily want to name 25% of your characters John! But in addition to designating, names also function as signals, providing the reader with clues about gender, ethnicity, even social status. An author who introduces a character to the reader as Mary will, even without any further description, signal to the reader certain characteristics of Mary, such as that she is a woman.

Most names, unless wholly unfamiliar to a reader, will signal their gender, but carefully chosen, names can signal quite a bit more. In a novel involving characters from many different linguistic and geographic backgrounds, names are a natural way of signalling which of these myriad origins a person can come from, and this signalling can be accomplished by mixing the different techniques we outlined in the previous post.

For example, if the majority of the characters are named according to the 4th option, using the standard modern English form of a name, then introducing a character as Giovanni immediately signals not only that he is a man but also that he is foreign — coming from a different linguistic and geographic context. This technique can be multiplied for as many cultures and contexts as desired!

It’s clear that this method can be used to intentionally signal this sort of information, but it is important to remember that this information can be signalled inadvertently. You might pick a name which is in fact authentic for a particular culture and period, but is more closely associated with another culture, runs the risk of sending the wrong signals. For example, it may be the case that Jan is found as a variant of John in England, but it is more closely associated with the Low Countries and Germany, so the reader who doesn’t know the minutiae of the variations of names in medieval England may be confused by the mix signals sent by the name itself and the context in which it is found.

Which brings us back around to the primary moral of the previous post, namely that sometimes one can be too authentic, in the sense that the result then becomes inaccessible to the reader. Which, in the end, illustrates what’s most important: That the story be enjoyed by the reader, regardless of whether they are an expert onomast or not!

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One response to “NaNoWriMo: Names as signals

  1. Pingback: NaNoWriMo: Names as signals | e-onomastica | S...

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