One of my favorite short stories is “The Rule of Names” by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s a lighthearted story about a dragon who’s spent years in hiding, disguised as a human, until one day when a young hero shows up and says the dragon’s true name. I thought about this story recently because I’m working on a story of my own where one of the main characters is a dragon, and I had to figure out what his name was.
Sometimes characters show up already named, and sometimes I try a few names out and then figure out which one fits. And then there are the other times, where I simply can’t write the story until I have at least a close approximation of the final name. To make things even more complicated, I have several forms of synesthesia, including grapheme-color synesthesia – so not only do I have to find the right names for my characters, each name has to be the right color. 🙂
Sometimes I can work with placeholder names, but other times I get totally wrapped around the axle and have to research names. I’ve found using ‘themed’ names to be surprisingly helpful. For example, the mermaids I’ve written about so far have Greek names, dryads have Italian names, and witches generally have Celtic names of some sort. After a bit of fretful research I made up a name that seemed to fit, and called the dragon Tereig (unless I change that before publication…). Only later did I realize that I could have followed Tolkien’s path and gone with an Old Norse theme.
Tereig yawned and twitched his tail, knocking a golden goblet from the pile of gold and jewels and riches he lay upon. The goblet clattered as it rolled across the marble floor of the great hall and came to a stop at the base of a stone column. Sunlight streamed in through the windows high up on the wall, and made the precious stones scattered about sparkle as if they were lit up from the inside.
He stretched his back legs out and turned on his side, and then wrinkled his nose as something sharp dug into his underbelly. He knew without looking that it was King Stigr’s crown, which Tereig had added to his hoard a few hundred years earlier.
Stigr had been a pesky fellow. He’d sent knight after knight to Tereig’s lair, but was never brave enough to face the dragon himself. Tereig had solved that problem by flying to Stigr’s castle, turning one of the turrets to a pile of rubble, and plucking the crown off of the king’s head while he tried to run away.
– from the first draft of the unnamed dragon story
I’ve learned that when I start a new story it usually takes me about 1,000 words until I feel like I’m comfortable with the characters. With this story, there are two main characters – so I was just starting to get comfortable with the first character, and then had to start the process all over. It was grueling, but I finally exerted enough willpower to get past the hard part. Now I just have to write the final scene and then do a few round of edits, since I tend to write sparse first drafts and add in details in subsequent editing passes. And then I’ll move on to the next project… 2018 is going to be a busy year!