Tag Archives: The Mists of Avalon

The Fascination of a Name

rolodexIt’s a shame that we don’t get to choose our own names. At different points in my life I wanted to change my name to something that had meaning for me. (Thank the stars I didn’t—I can’t imagine going through life now as “Morgana” just because I read The Mists of Avalon one too many times.)

But when it comes to writing, I get to name people whatever I want. I’m at the point in my WIP where I am thinking hard about whether or not the working names I have been using as placeholders are my characters’ real names. I’m working on a contemporary re-telling of an epic poem, so I’m pretty much stuck with some names—but others I get to have fun with.

Sometimes the working name I choose turns out to be just right. But sometimes a name in my literary Rolodex ends up feeling off for some reason. Here are some things that I’m considering as I narrow down my choices:

Personal history: I could take the name of my tyrannical elementary-school French teacher and apply it to the mythical hag in my WIP. Or I could name my protagonist after that cool barista who always remembers how I take my coffee. A word to the wise: read up on libel law before you go naming your villain after an evil boss or a malicious ex-boyfriend.

Sound and emotion: The sound of a name can sometimes evoke a feeling. Try reading your characters’ names out loud—do the s sounds make you suspicious of your character? Do the big, broad o’s make him seem gregarious and wise? Do first-name, last-name combinations of single syllables, like Jane Doe, make your character seem anonymous or ineffectual?

Alliteration or assonance: This can be a fun, although potentially fatally distracting trick. You may like the sound of Suzie Schwartzman, Angelina Alomar, or Peter Pumpkineater, but, by golly, you better have a reason for it. Some duplication of sounds can be pleasing and realistic, but too much can be hard for a reader to get past.

Connotation: There are some names that carry the weight of historical, literary, religious or mythological meaning. Not just the biggies—like Moses, Adolf or Osama—but also seemingly benign names like Adam, Dorothy, Diana, Russell, Carrie, Percival, Harry, or Kate can mean different things to different readers, depending on geography, age, or even level of media savvy. The well-read writer will recognize this and either combat the connotations or use them to her advantage.

Trends: I’m sure at some point, names like Gertrude, Matilda, Eunice and Harold were considered the baby names of the year. In the future, we’ll look back and wonder why there were so many children named Justin or Emma, or why someone chose to inflict their offspring with something like Apple or Moroccan. You probably have a sense of what names are fads and which are classics, so go with your gut—and turn on E! once in a while.

Hidden messages: I’m reminded of my third-year seminar in American literature, and a particular class in which we were studying Henry James’s The Bostonians. When the class was asked about James’s choice of naming one his characters Olive, one classmate said, “Maybe James is telling his character, who is pretty repressed, to “O, live!” The rest of the class laughed, but I thought he was on to something.

Whether your goal is to find a name that is contemporary, classic and connotation-free, or to give your reader insight into your story by choosing a name with many layers of meaning, don’t take naming lightly.

How have you had fun with names in your work?



Filed under Writing ideas

All I want for Christmas

I don’t know about you, but my Christmas wish list is jam-packed with books. What with a new Margaret Atwood, the Giller short list, and shelves of new and compelling non-fiction, I will have serious eye-strain come the end of January!

Mind you, I still haven’t gotten through the stack of hardcovers I got as gifts last year. It’s not like books go bad, so I will be able to read and re-read them over the decades, but I hate feeling like I’m missing something special.

Many years ago, I got a copy of A.S. Byatt’s Possession for Christmas. Reading that vast, glorious book changed the course of my academic career.

Although it wasn’t a gift, I was similarly entranced by Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon when I read it as an impressionable teen. To this day, I listen for women’s voices, or lack of them, when considering our culture’s canon.

Another of my favourites is Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. That novel took me back to my days at Luther College in Regina, and made me believe that fairy-tale characters walk the corridors of all private schools. I try to read it every September.

What similarly life-changing book awaits me on my “to-read” shelf? Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys and Maria Snyder’s newest series could be contenders, along with the most recent P.D. James.

I had better get reading.

I’d love to hear about the books that changed your lives. Restless Writers, chime in!

Best wishes to everyone for a wonderful holiday and a productive new year.


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Filed under Books and stuff