What’s in a name? What’s in a title?

Every now and then (once in ten years?), the perfect story or novel title comes to me in a flash of brilliant perfection. For all the other thousand times I need a title, I fret, I struggle. In discouragement, I settle, and then I rethink, toil again. And still it’s just not right.

Titles are a chore for me. I’ve even had two magazine editors very generously suggest new titles for stories I’ve sent them. My gratitude is immense. I wish I could always have someone title my works for me. Like artists titling their paintings, I want to call my stories, “Vampire with Apples,” or “Graveyard at Dusk.” This just doesn’t do for someone working with words.

A recent blog post asked if titles are important. Yes, I think they are, though for me, often it’s after the fact. A title can draw us in to a story, or make us pick up a book, but often I find I don’t really notice the title until I’ve finished reading. Or maybe it’s that the title doesn’t quite take on meaning until I’ve read the work. Then, yes, then, I go back and say, ahhh, that’s what the author meant!

In titling my novel, Beside the Darker Shore, I removed the preposition a dozen times. Who needs prepositions? But in a sense, that was the point. Just as I chose “darker” rather than “dark.” The main character is a tentative, cautious man, who is more likely to skirt the edge than dive in. Also, he’s aware of the thrill of shorelines, both sunlit and moonlit, hopeful and deadly. He has to make a choice and spends the novel “beside” that choice, which is a bit “darker” than he’d like.

The same blog asked about character names. Are they important? We’ve all heard the advice about avoiding similar names, or names that begin with the same letters. Unfortunately, in that same novel, I’ve been unable to give up the similarly initialed Alec and Arturo. Alec represents reason and restraint; Arturo represents emotion and wild abandonment. They are the choices the main character faces. I wanted the similarity. I hope it doesn’t confuse the reader.

I nearly always look up the meaning of my characters’ names, and choose names based on meaning. But there are times the name comes to me and I simply see the character and I feel changing the name would be stealing his or her natural identity. Why is Stephen named Stephen in that same novel? I could say because it means “crown” or “wreath,” and he is the glorious and gorgeous immortal in the novel. But really, I just always liked that name and it came to me as him.

Whether the meaning matches the character or not, I do think the name should feel like the character, have a softness or harshness, a practicality or romanticism that settles easily with the reader. For me, Alec, which is harsher, could not be the romantic that Arturo is. And Stephen is softer than the protagonist David, who skirts that darker shore.

Titles, character names–I’ve heard some people say they use song lyrics for titles, that they pull names from the endless lists of baby-name sites. I’m always scouring those baby-name sites, or looking up derivations of words to find related names. When I’m struggling for my title, I take others’ advice–I search for an image that stands out in the story; I condense the theme to a phrase. Sometimes it works; sometimes, sigh, I seem to hit delete for weeks on end.

I’m wondering what you do. What comes easily? How much do you worry about a title or a name? I think back on character names that remain with me in books I’ve read, or in movies. I like that. And I like speaking a favorite book title with reverence or affection because it stands for something I love. Yes, they’re important to me. And when a story works, they become important to the reader.

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