‘That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.’ It’s an old Shakespearean cliché, meaning what matters is what something is, not what it’s called. A name doesn’t change anything. Names are completely irrelevant.
I point you to every fairy story out there, where a single name can hold complete power over its possessor. I point you to a teacher friend of mine, who says certain names ring alarm bells in her mind. I believe names are a part of us. They’re not everything, not by a long shot, but we’re born with them, and we grow up with them, and when we hear them called in the street we look around. They’re familiar and comforting (even when we hate them. And oh, have I hated mine). They’re an essential part of our identities. When I got married last year and changed my name, and stopped legally being Sangu Mandanna, I flipped a little bit. It was very existential. Very OMG WHAT HAVE I DONE? WHO AM I NOW?! (I will cop to being a teeny weeny bit dramatic. But you see what I mean?)
In THE LOST GIRL, my narrator, an echo and copy, is called Amarra, like her original. Three chapters in, she changes her name. She picks the name Eva. I won’t tell you why, because that would be very spoilery, but I will say she doesn’t choose that on a whim. The name means something to her. It feels right for her. Most importantly of all, she chooses it because it’s the only way she can give Amarra and the Weavers a kick in the teeth. It’s the only way she can take charge of her own identity.
So, given all of this, it won’t come as a surprise to anyone that character names are a big, fat thorn in my side. Sometimes I get really lucky and, when a character emerges full-blown in my head, like Athena out of Zeus, they come with a name. My Weavers did this. There was never any question that they were going to be called Matthew, Adrian, and Elsa. Mina Ma also did this, bless her.
Which means, HOORAY! Massive victory dance to celebrate the fact that I have avoided the alternative.
Ah, the alternative. So what happens when they don’t arrive with name tags conveniently attached?
It goes something like this:
PLAN A. Name New Character after someone I know and, if the name suits them, it sticks. Lekha, for example (you’ll meet her when you read the book. She’s awesome.)
At which point, SANGU: Phew.
If it doesn’t stick, we have PLAN B. Name New Character after someone in a favourite book or movie. Erik, one of Eva’s guardians, was named for the eponymous phantom in The Phantom of the Opera when trying to name him Steve, after my husband, failed miserably.
SANGU: I feel an almost overpowering urge to start pulling out my hair. BUT WAIT! I have a name! I like this name! This name works! Crisis averted.
If PLAN B fails, I resort to baby name websites. Then to demanding that my husband name my characters. Then to tears.
SANGU: I’m tugging at my hair, Steve! Do you realize what this means? This means I’m descending into madness! Find me a name! Find me a name! FIND ME A NAME!
And when that fails,
SANGU: Oh. I’m now bald.
Before I leave you with a lasting impression of a crazy author, I should add this. Somewhere between PLAN B and LOSS OF HAIR is a place where I simply give up. I pick a random name, regardless of what it is or what it means or who has it, and stick it on a character, and just keep writing in the faint, faint hope that one day I will wake up and a miracle will have happened: that name now belongs.
That happened with Sean, who was never supposed to be called Sean. Now he couldn’t possibly be anything else.
All of which is my long, roundabout way of saying a name means something. It’s as familiar as family. It’s a gift someone gives you when you’re born. It’s reassuring. It makes you feel like you. You’d feel bereft if you forgot it.
But see, it’s all you. All about how you feel. It’s you who might turn when you hear your name called. It’s you who might ignore it. That’s the thing. Having her own name was important to Eva, but Sean could have been called anything and maybe, just maybe, he would still be Sean. It was different for each of them and it’s different for each of us. A name only matters as much as you want it to.