Naming names

This blog is turning out to be very useful for networking. It’s surprising the people who’ve found me through this thing. It has also proven (as I suspected would be the case) that I am devastatingly ignorant on the subject of prehistoric fiction and indeed literature in general. But that’s okay; I’m here to learn. I’ve been pointed in the direction of what promise to be some interesting reads, including a graphic novel!

I thought I’d talk a bit about issues surrounding terminology. This is something I touched on briefly in my previous post when I mentioned that it has been argued that “transition” is an inappropriate word to describe the period of change between Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. The evidence almost always suggests that the process was much more complex than a quick, clean change brought about by a “Neolithic Frontier” – yet another term that has brought about extensive discussion. Archaeologists often continue to argue that the terms “Neolithic” and “Mesolithic” are unsatisfactory, but I fear that we’re too late to change that. Those particular terms are here to stay.

I’d also like to consider the sorts of terminology and language that authors chose to use in their writing. One of the first problems I’m encountering as I think about starting to write is simply how to go about naming any characters I might come up with! I’ve seen some authors making up their own names. Another popular route seems to be to follow the Native American approach and go for names reminiscent of dear old Jaguar PawPersonally I think that I’d be inclined to make up my own names. I find that although many cultures often give their children names that mean something in their language, I’m distracted by reading English words as names. I often find some of them rather laughable as well, which stops me from truly engaging with the characters and scenarios in which they find themselves.

Then there’s the issue with the names given to roles and positions within society. What do we call the leaders, the husbands and wives, the spiritual leaders? In archaeology it’s important to try and come up with the most impartial and neutral language. Personally I am forever running from westernised ways of thinking and writing. I think the number one rule when attempting to envision our past is to remember that the way we see our world could be infinitely different from the way that our ancient ancestors did.

Of course when writing fiction for a much wider audience than just archaeologists, who sympathise with such agonies, allowances must be made. The characters must be relatable and the situations understandable. I think that plot would not be the main issue here – in some ways humans are very simple, and I think that we have probably been telling stories in a similar fashion from the very beginning – there will always be accounts of “good” versus “evil”, forbidden love, parables and myths with some sort of moral lesson.

But is it really appropriate to call a Neolithic leader a King or  a Lord? Or a Mesolithic spiritual specialist a Shaman? The former, to me, smack of far too feudal a system. The latter is a specialised term that was originally used to refer to the spiritual guides of nomadic groups in the Arctic Circle, who were believed to have had access to the spirit realm through entering states of altered consciousness (by getting high as freaking kites), but has become widely used in anthropology, history and archaeology.

I feel like perhaps the best approach, then, would be to come up with more new names rather than re-using English ones that have hundreds of years of socio-political background and possible connotations.

It’s always very easy to get caught up in these issues. I have fallen victim to such discussions in so many of my previous written assessments. I would start an essay by defining the subject, and then confronting the inevitable issues with terminology in the subject and, without realising it, have wasted half of my word count on a tangent. If we spend too much time discussing the intricacies of terminologies, are we defeating the point of archaeological enquiry? Ultimately we want to find out what the hell people got up to, not what words are most appropriate to describe them! But to make a piece of prose enjoyable it must be written in a way that involves the reader, rather than bringing questions into their minds, so perhaps in fiction these issues remain important.

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5 thoughts on “Naming names

  1. Emily, thank you for this post, which asks important questions.

    I choose to write prehistoric fiction because it gives the writer a unique freedom to write about the real world and explore what’s universal to humans whenever and wherever they lived or live.

    I enjoy fantasy and science fiction as long as the writers clarify early on what their imagined worlds permit their characters to do. I want to know why one character’s magical, paranormal, or futuristic powers are superior to another’s. If I discover that anything goes, I stop reading.

    I also enjoy historical fiction and literary fiction set in the present day. The main problem with these genres, though, is that the writer and reader all too often have to take sides in tired old arguments such as Protestants versus Catholics during the Tudor era or Muslims versus Christians during the Crusades, or the proper roles of females and males, or straights and gays, in the current era.

    Another problem with historical and literary fiction is the time-consuming research they require. You can’t give the wrong date for the deaths of Elizabeth I or Gore Vidal without being dismissed as a writer who can’t be taken seriously.

    Prehistoric fiction, on the other hand, has one rule only: was it possible for the characters in this story to do what they did? Writers of prehistoric fiction don’t have to prove that their characters acted out their parts at any specific time or in any specific location.

    Since writers of prehistoric fiction, though, do have to adhere to what was possible, they can’t have their characters sit down to a meal consisting of lentils, rice, tomatoes, chicken, and whole-wheat bread no matter how delicious and nutritious it might seem to us.

    As far as the names of the prehistoric characters are concerned, I could never call them Mary, Tom, Ann, or Ed. Nor am I satisfied with the obviously artificial names that so often appear in prehistoric fiction. I suspect most, if not all, prehistoric peoples named themselves and their children after natural aspects of their world, for whatever reason they might’ve had to do so.

    As far at the rulers and their titles are concerned, I believe a Greco-Roman or feudalistic context is justified in prehistoric fiction. My research tells me that the origins or those themes are unknown. Therefore they’re probably prehistoric, and I can use them to make my stories understandable to a serious reader in 2012. It’s yet another freedom prehistoric fiction affords.

    And that to me is what prehistoric fiction and its access to universality is all about: freedom.

    Thank you, again, Emily, for this post.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ron! I do think they are important questions, and I’ll probably continue to ask similar ones as I actually get along with planning and hopefully eventually writing!

      I totally agree with you in that one of the best things about prehistoric fiction – along with sci fi and fantasy of course – is that you’ve got leave to create a whole new culture for your characters to dwell in. What sets it apart from the latter two though is the challenge of getting your facts right, and contrary to what many might thing, there are a lot of facts to get right! Along with the archaeological data, there is a whole plethora of ethnographic research that can be consulted for ideas on the sorts of social and economic systems that might well have been at work in the past.

      Whilst historic fiction may be much more restrictive in terms of your freedom to be creative, I disagree with your implication that it takes less time to research. If you need to know a date or a name you can simply look it up and that’s it. You’ve got a fact. If you need to know how a certain archaeological site looked and worked, you will have to first find the appropriate records and then (unless the excavator has nicely laid it out for you) work out the stratigraphy and work out which structures were contemporary with one-another. As is almost always the case, various archaeologists will contradict each other. It’s always a challenge to decide with whom you agree and stay true to the facts. I think that were I interested in just memorising facts, names and dates as it were, then I’d have done a history degree. It’s the interpretation of what little we have left of our past that simultaneously perplexes and excites me so.

      RE names: you’re totally right. Bob and Bill are NOT an option. I think you’re probably right. People were probably named after favourable traits, parts of their landscapes, even animals. However I personally feel like reading those words in English is a bit (for want of a better word) … clunky. I’m a slow reader, and I’m easily pulled out of a book, and I think it’s that trait that makes me stumble when I read English named. I like the idea of going the way of GRRM with the Dothraki and having new words that are explained to mean something in the native tongue of the characters being talked about.Of course, this is a personal subject, and not something that would ever be a deal breaker for me.

      I’d be a bit averse to using words reminiscent of feudal or greco-roman social systems simply because in a prehistoric context (particularly earlier prehistory when people were living in smaller groups with less need for highly organised socio-politcal systems) they seem far too familiar.

      The matter does perplex me so. I realise that if I start making up new words for everything I might end up with a whole new language and still be writing my first work as I enter retirement. I also realise that if you want your fiction to be accessible to EVERYONE then it should contain at least concepts that we are all familiar with.

      • Emily, thank you for your thoughtful response.

        (I first want to apologize for a typo and a grammatical mistake in my comment. In the second sentence in the third-to-last paragraph, the “or” should be “of.” In the second-to-last paragraph, the “is” should be “are.”)

        I agree with you that historical social systems become less appropriate the further back in prehistory one goes. Because I’ve set my novels at the end of prehistory, though, I believe a government resembling an ancient monarchy and a religion with generic gods and goddesses of war, love, etc., and feast days coinciding with the full moon and changes of the season, are appropriate. Both systems apparently have their roots in prehistory.

        Insofar as research is concerned, I believe you’re right that it is at least as difficult and time-consuming for prehistoric fiction set in a specific time and place, such as Stonehenge, as it is for historical fiction. That prehistoric fiction, like historical fiction, also takes the risk that new research will soon make the story seem hopelessly outdated.

        On the other hand, I write the kind of prehistoric fiction that isn’t tied to a specific time or place. I write about the advent of agriculture, towns and cities, writing, and history. You and I know that these apparently arrived for different peoples and the lands they occupied at widely differing times and in more ways than one.

        As much as I enjoy reading about the latest archaeological discoveries relating to all of prehistory, my concern isn’t with what was in fact but with what was possible. For example, my characters eat wheat bread and use horses as beasts of burden. That means they can’t also eat rice or maize, or use llamas as beasts of burden.

        So my research seeks answers to questions such as these: Could they raise cattle, sheep, and goats? Could they grow onions and lentils? Could they make wine? Could they construct their buildings of wattle and daub? (Yes, yes, yes, and yes.)

        My main concern, though, is the story. Is the world in which my characters live consistent from beginning to end? Are their conflicts of the kind all humans have had to confront? Do they gain our sympathy enough to make us wish to know what happened to them?

        Thank you again, Emily, for your blog, your post, and your response to my comment.

        • Hi Ron!

          Since I last replied I’ve started reading your first novel. My kindle tells me I am 56% of the way through already. I’m really enjoying it! This comment has already answered some questions I had. You say that it’s not set in a specific time frame or area, but from your descriptions the story seems to be set in perhaps a later Linearbandkeramik settlement? Where did you go when you did your research? Were there any particular site reports or papers by archaeologists that you consulted?

          The fact that you have chosen not to set your novel in a predetermined culture or time frame really interests me. Around Christmas time when I was starting to think about perhaps writing I considered the same course of action. I had drawn myself a complicated map (of a new, fantasitcal coastline and island) and created characters and situations. I realised though, that I was drifting too far from what I personally want to achieve, and that is an educational, academically viable portrayal of a particular prehistoric period.

          I think having read your latest comment I can now enjoy your books even more. I found my mind racing, thinking where are they and when was this… now I can concentrate on the story. And can I just add that I absolutely adore Blue Sky. I can’t wait to find out what becomes of him!

          • Emily, thank you for your very kind remarks. My research has consisted of extensive reading of articles on prehistory — because I can’t resist reading about it. For research on specific subjects as I write, I go to the online Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia and follow their references to articles dealing with the matter. I generally feel that the encyclopedias don’t provide the final answers to my questions. I have to keep my eye on the clock, though, because I often find myself reading about things I won’t have any need for in my novels.

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