Titles and Names and Themes, Oh My!

IMG_0163So, the IWSG question o’ the month: what’s harder for you to come up with, titles or character names?

I suppose, when you get right down it, the answer is titles for me. Mostly because, well…we all want to pick that perfect title. You know the one, that title that absolutely grabs the shoppers perusing the book shelves (whether physical or electronic) and makes them check out your story. Of course, we want that title to have meaning, too. We want it to have something to say in addition to hinting at the story itself.

Unfortunately, going all Goldilocks and getting the title just right ain’t easy. Too much of this, too little of that…

When I start a story/series, I generally don’t have even the barest inkling of a title. Instead, I take a clue from tech companies and give that story/series a “project name.” That particular name is my own shorthand, and generally is intended to prod me about the story’s focus and emphasis.

As I start writing the story itself, I begin keeping a running list of potential titles. That list sits, in fact, right next to the running list of songs & artists I compile for that story’s “soundtrack.” By the time I’m at the halfway point, those potential titles are narrowed down to the main candidates that (hopefully) have some meaning and basis within the story itself.

Of course, sometimes you get it completely wrong…


Hmm, maybe I’ll tell a story to put some meat on the bones of what I described above:

My current work-in-progress series started life as the barest, most basic idea for, of all things, a series of short stories. It didn’t last long as that “anthology” idea because, well, I don’t actually write short fiction. It turned into a novel-length story because I’m too damned wordy, but mostly because I like to write character-driven stuff just far too much to go down the rabbit hole of plot-driven short stories.

At any rate, that idea was originally given the project name “DockRat” because it was about homeless streetkids living in the poorest and worst part of a port city (err…space station, in this case).

Halfway through the writing process, I had my potential titles. From those, the title I (originally) chose was the one most closely tied into the story itself, and that best carried a sense of its mood and theme. Then, when I had finished the writing and went into the revision process, I promptly abandoned that title. It was too dark, I told myself. Too depressing, too much of a turn off. Instead, I went with something easier, something more literary.

That was a mistake.

The irony of the whole thing is that it took another IWSG regular to help me understand why I still had reservations about the new title, and to spur me to think about why it didn’t work. She had never seen the original title, had only ever seen the manuscript with the new one attached. When she returned that MS to me with her comments, criticisms and suggestions, one of those bits of feedback was to suggest a new title…the original title that I had abandoned!


And so, after my own subsequent internal debate, the “original final title” was re-born. DockRat became (again) Somewhere Peaceful to Die (née This Place of Wrath and Tears).

Funnily enough — especially for a story intended and written to be a one-off — there are now two sequels in the works. Maybe it’s because I know the characters so intimately now, or just that I have a better grasp of the story, but the sequels’ (potential) titles came much easier, and much sooner. They became apparent and obvious even as I was still working through the trilogy’s overall story-arc: The Silence That Never Comes and The Flicker of Ghosts.

Oh, by the way — if character names come “easier” to me, it is only because the names for my major characters all have some context and meaning within the story’s subtext and theme. One of the thematic elements in DockRat is the concept of streetkids as “ghosts,” as folks unseen and unwanted. My protagonist’s last name just happens to come from the Danish word for — what else — ghost.*

*Linguistically speaking, it’s the source-word for the English term “spook.”