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When Characters Shed Names

My Name in Elvish by Matthew McVickarWe real-world folks can get very attached to our names. Most of us only change them when we get married or divorced, convert to a new religion, or arrive in a new country. Even then, such changes often only alter part of our name, such as the family name, or the way it is pronounced. Occasionally someone will change their name out of a dislike for it, or adopt a nickname as their primary name, or take on an entirely new identity to escape their past or the law. For many of us, however, the prospect of discarding our name, particularly a familiar name our loved ones have been calling us by all our lives, is not appealing. Our names are bound up with our identity, and we rarely have a reason or desire to change them.

This is why I find it fascinating when fantasy characters change names, often with the detached ease of someone donning a new coat.

TRUE NAMES HOLD POWER

The Lies of Locke Lamora (cover)There is a common reason characters adopt new names, and it is probably obvious to most fantasy readers: names can hold power. The concept of a true name is an old one, appearing in folklore and religious belief, and fantasy novels make regular use of it. The Earthsea Cycle, The Gentleman Bastard Series, The Bartimaeus Sequence and The Kingkiller Chronicle, among many others, all link a magician’s ability to control people and things with knowing or speaking their true names.

What constitutes a ‘true name’ often differs from book to book. In some it is simply the name given at birth by one’s parents, and in others it is an expression of some truer or deeper nature that only a talented magician can determine. Either way, you can end up with characters that are regularly called by a name that isn’t their real one, either because they’ve concealed their true name from an early age, or because they don’t even know what it is.

It’s unsurprising, then, that these ‘false’ names are less important to the characters, and that they are able to shed or adopt new names with ease. However, in the real world I’d argue the opposite occurs: that our names gain power over us through repetition and usage. The more accustomed we and others become to using them, the more associated they are with our identity. So while in a fantasy a long unspoken or unknown name can be considered ‘true’, in reality, it is the name in regular use that is likelier to hold our attention, to control how we see ourselves and express our identity to others.

HIDDEN NAMES FOR HIDDEN PASTS

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (cover)The other reason a fantasy character might shed a name, or use a false one, is to conceal their true identity – often because they are the secret heir to a throne, or wish to keep their past hidden from those who might use it against them.

This results in characters with multiple names, like Aragorn, who originally appears as ‘Strider’ in The Lord of the Rings until his royal lineage is revealed, and who is later even given the name Elessar. It can also result in characters with multiple personas to match their different names, such as Celaena Sardothien in Throne of Glass and Karou in Daughter of Smoke and Bone (to avoid spoilers, I haven’t mentioned their other names here).

It can be a jolt for a reader when a key character changes their name and is suddenly being called something entirely new. In this case, however, it is less surprising that the characters rarely have similar troubles, given they are reverting to a previously familiar name they have been concealing.

TAKING ON A NEW ROLE

Fantasy characters might also adopt a new name when adopting a new role, persona or position of power, particularly if ritual or tradition calls for them to take on a new name.

This can simply be a minimal change or addition of a title, such as Gandalf the Grey becoming Gandalf the White, or an adoption of an entirely new name. Often villains become known only by their titles, or by new names they have adopted to build their powerful dark identities, such as The Lord Ruler (Mistborn Trilogy), The Darkling (Shadow & Bone Trilogy) or Voldemort (Harry Potter), with these names concealing their less-threatening, more human former identities.

BEING MANY THINGS TO MANY PEOPLE

The Name of the Wind (cover)Then there is the fact that a character may take on multiple names because they are viewed differently depending on the context or the people around them. They may be a subject of rumour or legend, or a warrior who takes on a nom de guerre, or someone that traverses many lands, cultures and classes. Their arsenal of titles, names and nicknames indicates their importance in the world, and also the different faces they show to different people. Kvothe from The Kingkiller Chronicle is a prime example of this, being known by at least six different names, including Kote, Reshi, and Maedre.

SLAVE NAMES AND FORCED NAMES

Occasionally, a new name is forced onto a character when they become a slave, or when they find themselves in a new, hostile culture. In these cases, the character must often cling to and reclaim their old identity, and the slave name becomes a symbol of their oppression. For example, in Six of Crows, Inej (also known as ‘The Wraith’ because of her great stealth), is made vulnerable when her former master uses the name she bore as an indenture at the House of Exotics: ‘Little Lynx’. Although she is now free and powerful, the name transports her psychologically into that former powerless self, and reminds her of the punishments and abuses she endured.

SO WHAT EFFECT DO THESE NAME CHANGES HAVE?

The name changes fantasy characters undergo are certainly not insignificant – they can be markers of different personas, secret pasts, a royal bloodline, a reclaimed identity, a hidden weakness, or a transition to a new role. Still, fictional characters seem quite comfortable slipping in and out of names, and the names themselves can sometimes appear to hold little personal significance to them. If the change is not a forced one (e.g. a slave name), they rarely lament the loss of a familiar name, or grumble about a new name they don’t like (though many do grumble about unwanted titles or nicknames). More often, the thought they give to a new name focuses on the practical choices behind using it or the greater change it signifies. This makes sense, as names in fantasy are not just about the character, but about their place within the traditions and histories of the invented world.

Names by Alex Barlow (detail)

As a reader, however, I sometimes resent those name changes, or wish the character would spare a thought for the familiar sounds and syllables they are casting off, be it affectionate or otherwise. Perhaps this is because I get attached to names, and can’t feel quite the same determined practicality many characters do when they throw them aside. However, changing or concealing a name remains a powerful and symbolic action in fantasy with a long-standing tradition, and the truth is in spite of initially resenting a new name, I often come to like it in the end. I guess it’s simply a question of getting comfortable in that new coat.

Title image by Alex Barlow.

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