20 August 2010

To Name is to Imbue with Life

Do you want rent rooms at Burtonleigh House or Bleak House? Take a picnic to Springfield Crest or Danklow Pits? Drive there in a beat-up Honda or a beat-up Ferrari?
     Knowing why we, as people, make instant choices helps us, as writers, choose with care. Of course, our choices only seem instant to us. Our brains have been taking information, collating it, comparing elements of it to previous experience, before giving us… a reasonable guess.
     Readers of our writing are doing this all the time, so quickly they hardly notice, taking from the page a word or phrase or entire paragraph and comparing it to their experiences so as to help build pictures in their minds. But coming across a name adds importance, it adds associations:

          ‘Do you want to go for a picnic today?’
          ‘Don’t mind. Not bothered.’
          ‘We could go to Danklow Pits.’
          ‘Oh, wow! Yeah! Last time we went…’

     Perhaps that made you blink, perhaps it didn’t. It depends how you felt about Danklow Pits when you first came across it as a bare name at the top of this post, your own associations, your emotional baggage. The fictional speaker’s emotional baggage is positive based on previous experiences there, but are you, as a reader, convinced? Do you remain wary of picnicking at Danklow Pits? Are you willing to go along to see if your first impression, based on a feeling, a hunch due to its name alone, was justified?
     This sort of juxtapositioning of characters’ and readers’ experiences is used a lot in the Horror genre, used in Thrillers and some Crime, depending on the sub-genre, and used sparingly and with subtlety in most other genres. Carried along by the pace, readers hardly notice, but the writers have made specific choices with a pay-off in mind, not set such in the text on a whim. They are fuelling atmosphere and readers’ anticipation, setting it down as a fine layer to be added to later, often via choices in description.
      In genres such as Romance, the naming of places and things is chosen to reinforce readers’ expectations of the sub-genre they have selected, but atmosphere and anticipation remain the writer’s goal. Danklow would ring alarms on a subliminal level no matter what it was used in conjunction with, because D-k are sharp sounding consonants, and the way a word ripples across the tongue, or across the reader’s mind, is always taken into consideration.
     Naming does imbue with life, so when making a choice decide first what pay-off you, the writer, want in return.

Also read post: Description: Signposts in the Text


  1. Very true. So much in a name. I've bought what have turned out to be dreadful books (and ignored what I later find to be great ones) on the strength of the name on the cover. This is on a sprint through a bookshop on the way to a train - long journey ahead, no book, nightmare - but I can't be the only person who does this.

  2. I had given no conscious thought to this process, Linda, but you are absolutely right. As a writer, I certainly make choices of names, including characters, for my readers, with the intention of flagging or persuading for some future intent. Very perceptive. I wonder how many writers do this almost instinctively and even without realising it? Thanks for this thought-provoking piece.