crafting character personalities based on the meanings of names
Being a writer and reader, people often give you interesting books. Thus was the unique tome bestowed upon me by my mother a few years ago: a book about deciphering the 'hidden, mystical and spiritual depth within names'. It was quirky thing, thick with names and even thicker with their supposed meanings, drawing from cultures, numerology and runic traditions, respectively. I recall flipping through it, and upon finding my own name, was very unimpressed with the description of my personality based on my name's 'vibrational resonance'--the concept that the sound of the pronunciation of a name can shape your traits. And so I placed it up on my bookshelf between two other dry anthologies to be forgotten.
Fast forward a few years later, when I was doing the early, early stage notes of Tangled Paths, before the book had a title or a whole plot, and I was fussing over the cast. The main character, Jathen, was pretty much fleshed out by then, along with Hatori and Jephue and a few others. I was mulling over the secondary characters with another writer friend of mine who was staying for the weekend, when on the way back to the living room from a bathroom run, she stumbled across my 'meaning of names' book.
I immediately dismissed her suggestion to use it as a jumping off point, as all the names within were relatively common ones, and I had a code of honor with regard to fantasy worlds having fantasy names. "Well, there are instructions in the back," she said, flipping through. "Of how to decipher a name that’s not in the book, or one you've made-up." As I was still not convinced, she set out to try and determine the meaning behind the name 'Jathen', just to prove to me it had some merit.
Her conclusions left me stunned.
The description she managed to piece together was Jathen's personality in a nut shell, and was so accurate to the character and the ultimate destiny I'd crafted for him, that I later included a refined version of it in a scene in Tangled Paths.
However, in that immediate moment, I wasn't quite convinced. While I am always open to the possibilities of things beyond our keen being out there, (as Shakespeare wrote, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”) my natural starting point is always that of the skeptic. So thinking it was a fluke, or that perhaps our discussion of the character previously had lent itself to her conclusions, I presented her with another fantasy name I'd made-up. One of a character I had yet to unveil to her, but had already fleshed out the personality.
Again, the description was nothing short of uncanny.
Four hours later, after interpreting nearly a dozen of my long-term characters, my friend's unusual name, and my nickname (which, I discovered, fit my personality to a tee, unlike my 'real' name, which is not often used) I was completely, and utterly, hooked. The concept of names having an effect on shaping a person's personality became a linchpin in Way Walker culture, and shaped an entire aspect of their magical system, that of vibrational resonance. I might have scoffed at it before, but now, well, it was the stuff of good books.
Yet, I couldn't bring myself to just lean entirely upon one resource. With the shape-shifting dragon culture of the Tazu that Jathen belonged to, I put my own additional spin on the idea, taking the mystical properties said to be in gemstones and working that into Tazu naming. It was a very useful tool, as it allowed me to fashion not only their basic personalities, but also the draconic colors and markings off of their gemstone names. Jathen's mother, for example, Rhodonith, was fashioned after the gemstone rhodonite, which in addition to being black and pink like Rhod's scales, also claimed to endow the wearer with "emotional balance that is said to nurture love as well as encourage the brotherhood of humanity; the ability to show both sides of an issue to assist in being more clear about coming to a conclusion in any disagreement." It's also said to be a stone of "unconditional love". All these qualities seemed to well-suit the protective mother and queen, and thus is why I choose the name for her.
However, in the case of a more antagonistic character like the guard captain Skaniss, I wanted him to be a 'flawed' version of the positive gemstone qualities. So I chose the stone skan, which is supposed to help a person think before they speak, and eliminate misconceptions and judgmental-ness. (Which, if you read the book, you'll discover this takes on an almost ironic quality for the character.) Since its inception, I've used this method to name almost every single Tazu in Tangled Paths.
In the end it's become a fun, fascinating way to help shape even the most secondary of characters, and has been great to enhance and refine main characters with personality quirks and facets that wouldn't readily spring to mind.
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