The Name of the Prose, Part 1: What’s in a Name?

Here’s a question for you, Dear Reader. What publisher would have taken Bram Stoker seriously if his villain had swept onto the page and said, in sepulchral tones, “I am Count Humperdink. I want to drink your blood”?

I am tempted to think that the Count’s intended victim might have died of extreme mirth, thereby depriving the big bat of a square meal. The same name, though, seems strangely appropriate for the arch villain of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. 

Names are an important element in fiction. From the title of the story, to the characters’ names, to place names to object handles—these tricky nouns help create the environment in which the reader lives while reading the story.

It’s said that first impressions linger. The title informs the reader’s first impression of a story and can color the attitude with which he enters the tale. In fact, the title can determine if he reads the story at all.

I critiqued a manuscript in a writers’ workshop that was excellent in every way—in fact, it was ready to publish. But I and another panelist (who happened to be an editor) agreed that the story might get left in the slush pile at some magazines because the title was hokey: “Aliens in Your Garage!” The author was going for a National Enquirer-style headline, but the story departed from the tone of the title from the first word on, plus it gave the impression that the storyline was clichéd. “Yeah, yeah. The aliens are already here,” thinks the editor. “So what? Big deal.”

When choosing a title for a story, I generally avoid names that do the following things:

  1. They give away the farm. I want the title of a story to draw readers in by revealing a tantalizing glimpse of the world within without giving an unobstructed view of the interior. What should the reader expect from a story entitled “Doomed” or “Man Without a Head”?
  2. They get down and get literal. Both of the above titles also meet this criterion. Here’s another: “Man Without a Body”.
  3. They don’t work with the tone or substance of the story. “Forever Friends”. Sounds like a nice little story about a couple of kids growing up together, then going their separate ways, right? It’s not. It’s a complex saga of space conquest with rip-roaring action, romance, betrayal, and loyalty.

Sometimes the title of a story is the first thing I come up with. I’m not alone in that. I had the title for my second Analog story before I wrote it because of something my husband said when he peered out our bedroom window one night: “Huh. Looks like we’re having a little bit of an eclipse.”

The humorous short story “A Little Bit of an Eclipse” was conceived and appeared in Analog not long after.

MrTwilightSome writers hate having to title stories. I’m not one of them, though there have been times when titling became a monumental headache. When Michael Reaves and I wrote Mr. Twilight (2006, Del Rey/Random House) the book was originally entitled Brimstone Blues. The publisher didn’t like the title for some reason, even though it dove-tailed with the first book in what was supposed to be a series, Hell on Earth. We retitled it Armageddon Blues, but that got shot down too, because there was an earlier novel with the same title.

After several misfires, Michael and I finally decided to name the book after its shadowy hero (sort of). The editor loved it, and the title Mr. Twilight became the official name of the prose. That turned out okay, because it’s Mr. Twilight’s picture on the cover (painted by the marvelous Chris McGrath) that prompted Robert Silverberg to say, “Ooo. Nice. Very elegant. Very noir.”

Next time, I’d like to consider character names we know and love.



The Name of the Prose, Part 1: What’s in a Name? — 6 Comments

  1. I need a name for the characters before I can write about them. This means their names have to come very early indeed. However, the name is just a tag, a way to handle them. Often I know very little else; I have written books where I didn’t even look at the hero until a couple hundred pages in. (“Oh wow, why didn’t you tell me you were a hunk…”)

    However, I don’t ever have a title for a book or story until it is done. I have so much trouble with this that I wrote an essay about it for SFWA:

  2. I seem to be light a light switch when it comes to names and titles. I either nail the right one very early or else I struggle with one idiocy after another. A technique that helps is to write down, as quickly as I can, every ridiculous idea that pops into my mind. If I keep doing this, very soon the ideas get better and better. Then I can take the dozen (or five, or whatever) of the best, let them ferment, and decide on the one that works best for me.

  3. I have a tough time with titles. It can be amusing to go trolling in the great poets and find other writers’ footprints there before me.

    Names–it’s hard for me to sink into a book if a protag has a silly-sounding or unpronounceable name, or one that has been used a lot, like “Raven” as prefix or suffix. But the worst are the apostrophe names that don’t make any linguistic sense. Some wag at a con years ago proposed that these should be pronounced with a “Doink!” sound, and ever since then, I cannot not hear it: the beautiful and mysterious Princess Ay’lar’a sounds in my head like Princess Aee-DOINK-lar-DOINK-ah.”

  4. The most annoying circumstance is when you get a bright idea for a wonderful title and write the story to match.

    Then, when you’re done, the story doesn’t fit it.


  5. Deborah, I seem to have a similar modus operandi. I often name a character because the name leaps out at me or, in the case of Taco Del, the character literally introduces himself by name.

    Every once in a while, though, I’ll struggle and try out name after name until one sticks. Usually, this is because there is some key character trait that I haven’t picked up on yet. When my then 15 year old daughter asked me to write about a teenaged witch and I conceived of the Sutherland Inheritance (now making the rounds in NYC), I named my lead character “Calla Moreau”. It didn’t feel completely right for reasons I still can’t fathom and one day, as I was prepping the MS to send to my agent, Calla simply renamed herself “Sparrow Moreau”.

    I’m not sure why, but I suspect that I’ll find out if I get a chance to write more books in what I hope to make a series. What’s ironic about it is that Sparrow also has a ritual name which came to me with great conviction as I wrote the scene in which she chooses it.

    Heh, maybe that’s the ticket—I need to let the character tell me their name instead of pretending that I can name them. 🙂

  6. Back when I was a baby writer and thought I knew what I was doing, I wanted to title my 3rd book “Ring Around the Rainbow.” This had a strong metaphorical tie to the story. It got laughed out of New York and by my agent. They wouldn’t even look at it, even though it was the 3rd book in a series, until I changed the title. It is now “The Loneliest Magician.”