What’s In a Name? What’s NOT?! (Also: Upcoming Sale!)

First off, the boring stuff: There’s going to be another Single’s Awareness Day sale!  And this time it spans the entire weekend, because after last year’s embarrassing debacle I elected to play it safe.  So if you’re looking to find a deal on Probable Outcome or grab a free copy of The Trap, head over there now!

And now that we’re done with that…

What I am about to say may shock some of you.  Particularly readers of my books.  I know it may be hard to believe, like some kind of cruel joke, but I assure you it is the shameful truth.  And that truth is… I suck at naming characters.

…Hey, HEY!  Stop laughing and start staring in shocked silence, damn it!

So… yeah.  Obviously most readers have already figured this out.  After all, it’d be the height of presumption to claim that this was a strength of mine after producing such a long and at times confusing book where a Tim and a Jim share 90% of their scenes.  Even I get those two mixed up at times, which as you might imagine makes proofreading it’s own special kind of hell.

That said, I like to think I’ve grown since I penned the first two books.  Or, if not grown, at least learned better ways to cheat at it.  Little things like random name generation programs, internet lists of the most popular baby names for the year a character was born, asking friends and family what they’re planning to name their firstborn and then shamelessly stealing it so that their son or daughter will forever be associated with a pickpocket whose contribution to the plot barely measured one paragraph, things like that.  There are just so many resources for people like me out there to take advantage of, it’s truly a golden age.  Because when it comes right down to it, names are assigned at birth.  Your parents don’t have the slightest clue if it’s going to fit your personality, occupation, or mysterious fate.  And that means free passes go to all those accountants out there named Caesar and warlords and emperors named Bob.

Of course, the same can’t be said for all things that need names.  Like technology.  Which is usually a pretty big thing in any science fiction.  Fortunately, that one’s not nearly as hard for me.  Because unlike people names, which are frequently random and nonsensical, there’s kind of a system for naming tech.  And while I’m not sure I’d say I’m great at it, I at least know enough to muddle through without having to steal the names of unborn babies.  As often.

The first thing I always look at when I’m introducing new tech is where it came from.  More specifically, what would the designers of said tech be looking to do with it while they were building it.  A key thing that I always consider here is what I call the professional/layman divide.  Products developed exclusively for professionals, be they engineers, contractors, doctors, or soldiers, tend to get treated a lot differently on their release than general consumer goods.  In these cases the people building the tech and the people buying it are often on the same page, or at the very least the same chapter, when it comes to understanding what the product does and how it’s supposed to be used.  Decisions are made based primarily on numbers, and anything that obscures those numbers too much is going to hurt more than it helps.

As such, anything that falls into this category will tend towards names that are straightforward, descriptive, and at times really long.  They’ll generally have model numbers integrated right into the name as well – banking on familiarity with an established brand (possibly one you’re already using) to help make the sale.   Sometimes they’ll even go so far as to include some of the vital statistics as well.  There will usually be a flashy, one or two word title tacked on as well, but truth is that from a writing standpoint that’s far less important for typical use.  In my experience the only people who routinely refer to a Cisco 6800 switch as a Catalyst are sales reps.  Those using them just refer to them either as 6800’s or, more commonly, switches.

And frankly, that’s great.  Professional products are awesome to include in sci-fi because they’re self-expository.  Just hearing what people call them can clue in the reader with basic information about what it does, allowing you to skip what can be tons of needless explanations that will destroy your pacing and put your less engaged readers to sleep (and possibly, your book into the nearest fireplace.)  Which is why it’s such a shame that the layman side of the divide exists.

Now, obviously professional level products quite frequently end up making their way into the consumer market.  And when they do, more often than not they’ll bring their nice descriptive names with them.  The very fact that I’m typing this on something called a “computer” and not “Brain-box” or “Typemaster!(tm)” is proof of that.  What really characterizes the professional/layman divide is not where the technology ends up being used, it’s where it started.  And as technological literacy grows far more slowly than general demand for technology, we are always seeing more and more cutting edge developments being produced and sold to laymen.

In cases like this where development is more risky and the best strategy for long term survival is to cast as broad a net as possible out into the consumer pool names become both vital and at times outright insane.  Products like this have to exude technological sex appeal.  They need to kindle a deep yearning in people to buy them.  And, most importantly, they need to do it better than the other fifty gadgets launching that quarter.  Marketing departments handle the names for these things.  There are numbers, yes, but the only ones paying attention to them are the consumers doing exhaustive research, and they’re not a large enough base to bank on.  So the numbers are shuffled off to a nearby placard, and top billing is given to a flashy, short, and only sometimes descriptive title.  Let’s face it, from a technical sense the word “Android” applies to a smartphone about as well as it does to a potato.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still some rules here.  Or rather, just one: Image.

While I’ll gladly admit to making fun of Google a bit, I have to admit that the choice of name for their operating system strikes me as brilliant.  I remember around the time that it was being developed that while Smartphones were definitely growing, there were still a lot of people (myself included) who weren’t entirely sold on the idea.  It was cool beyond belief, sure, and I wouldn’t lie if the technophile in me didn’t salivate at the thought of a pocket computer.  But I really just couldn’t see how having one was going to change things for me all that much.  And Android was definitely targeted, at least partially, at people like me.

It didn’t, and still doesn’t, describe the devices it produced.  And I highly doubt our smartphones will ever develop into bipedal male robotic duplicates of the human form.  But it did provide some insight into the kind of thing Google was going for: a multipurpose assistant capable of at least a limited degree of autonomy in assisting you with day to day menial tasks.  Basically, a robot butler you stick in your pocket.  And when I look at my phone today, I have to admit that the features that drew me to it were ones that I wouldn’t have even considered if the name hadn’t put me in that mindset.  Which brings me to one of the ways to approach naming civilian tech: rather than going for a literal description, you build an allegorical one.  A portable computer which happens to have a phone in it becomes an Android.  A personal scooter becomes a Segway.  Etc.  Which is great… so long as your readers draw the same parallel that you do.

Most often you’ll end up having the first character to whip the tech out tack a descriptive name on it for clarity, turning an Android into an Android phone, a Segway into a Segway scooter, and Kleenex into a Kleenex facial tissue.  Which brings me into the final approach where this is done for you.  It’s frequently called an ecosystem, but when you get down to it, it’s selling by brand name.  I’m speaking of course of anything with a lowercase i in front of it.

Names for this kind of tech are very easy to come up with, for obvious reasons, but a lot more problematic in writing.  Unless establishing the manufacturer is central to the plot or you’re willing to spend WAY too much time on exposition, you’re never going to be able to get the same effect.  If you haven’t built the Kleenex corporation up to be an all powerful big-brother style conglomerate, you’re never going to get the iPhone style reaction to the kFacialTissue.  Though you might get a chuckle or two.

So really, there’s only one conclusion we can draw from all of this.  Names, by their very nature, suck.  They are evil, evil nouns that exist only to breed confusion and overlong exposition.  And the sooner we can figure out a way to do away with the little bastards completely, the better off we’ll all be.