Character Naming: Part 2

And my favourite technique for naming characters is…

  1. SOUND SYMBOLISM!

I did linguistics at uni alongside creative writing, so this method may be harder for some people to work with. But this is by far my favourite method of naming characters.

I like to try to make the character’s name itself paint a picture of them.

Each sound you use to make words has particular qualities. The length of the sound, the place in your mouth that you use to make it and the way you force the air out all contribute to this. The way sounds combine increases the potential for you to find a name that conveys your character. What’s more, letters on the page are shapes. Not very complicated shapes, granted, but you can also use their curves, angles, loops and tails to your advantage.

I’m going to return to Anomalies for this example, and those names Dr Ronnie Scott liked so much: Phaedra Kepley and Rik Umborwin.

I decided to spell ‘Rik’ without a C because I wanted the word itself to be frank and brisk, like the way the character himself speaks. I also like the spikiness of the skinny I and K; they have something in common with his physicality. ‘Umborwin’, his surname, is the opposite, intended to both balance out the sharpness of the ‘Rik’ with its low back-of-mouth U and soft consonants, and to evoke his background. ‘Umborwin’, to my ear, sounds kind of like ‘lumbering’ and ‘mumbling’ (the word and the action itself). Many people in Anomalies view the lower classes as backward fools, and Rik’s diction is pretty rough.

By contrast, I chose ‘Phaedra’ for its relative softness. I’ll be honest: most of Rik and Phaedra’s character traits were chosen for contrast. The letters in ‘Phaedra’ are rounder, gentler, which I would have lost in spelling it ‘Faydra’. The ‘ay’ and ‘ah’ sounds are longer, less hasty, than the little ‘ih’ in ‘Rik’. The PH is a bit less bluntly honest, the AE demands you take a moment to think about how to treat it. So it goes with Phaedra herself. I tried to balance it out with the harder plosive sounds D, K and P, because she can be tough when she has to be. ‘Kepley’ in particular is almost prim in contrast to ‘Umborwin’, which puts the characters’ class differences right there in their names.

I don’t always put that much effort into just the names, but I do use this method a LOT. Rhythm and sound are really important.

In The Celestial Kris, I chose ‘Malo’ because of its big, long, soft sounds that suggested both Malo’s size (she’s a 25-foot giant) and her generous nature. ‘Sasuri’ is intended to evoke the word ‘susurrus’, which describes a whispering sound like sea foam on sand; Sasuri has a magical relationship to water, and like water, she can be calm and beautiful, or wild and deadly. ‘Ti’ is a small word, not taking up much space on the page, the I almost sheltering under the T, like the way the character hunches up and guards himself. And I picked ‘Kechan’ for its harsh K and CH, to reflect the character’s aggression.

I don’t expect anyone to notice these decisions. I just try to make them fit the character and the world of the story.

I also don’t know if anyone else perceives these sounds as I do, although I feel like, subconsciously, they do. Most swear words in English have a short vowel and a single syllable. They also have sharp, unvoiced plosives like P, K, and T, or an unvoiced sibilant – S or SH. Nasals like M, N and NG are rare. There are exceptions to every rule, but it’s very difficult to swear a word like ‘frag’ or ‘tjorkmin’, which I’ve seen some sci-fi writers try to pull off. They just don’t burst off your tongue like a good curse.

And that’s where I’ll leave you this week: quietly swearing to yourself at the computer.

Do you use sound symbolism in your writing? Would you like to hear more about using linguistics as a writing tool? Leave a comment below.

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