Earning a Sobriquet
Here is a list of the previous parts in this Story Springboards series -- about how to build a "springboard." In this section we've been examining the adage "just write an interesting story and it will sell." "Interesting" is a very complex subject. What interests you might not interest anyone else. What interests you today might bore you tomorrow.
So what is the secret of being "interesting?"
In Part 3 of this series,
we started sketching out the issues and topics relevant to constructing an Episodic Plot.
We looked at the link between fame, glory and the "interesting story":
Examines the popularity of Zombies and offers an explanation which might lead you to find the next most-popular subject.
In Reviews Part 3,
we discussed the TV Series version of Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- and noted in the dialogue the use of the concept "Origin Story."
Origin Stories in superhero land are about how the "Hero" became "Super" -- how they got started on a career of crime-fighting or protecting the helpless or innocent.
An Origin Story is a certain type of "story springboard."
In Romance, the "origin story" can be the "how we first met" story. Or it can be the recent 'breakup' story of one member of the couple-to-be that sets up why the new Relationship just can't crystalize yet.
In Romance, "Pet Names" are sobriquets that personal and unique to the couple, often so confidential people use them as passwords.
In Romance, the partner occupies the position of "Superhero" from the point of view of the lover -- the "He can do no wrong," position and "She is mine," position.
Almost every Superhero has a nickname -- "Superman" is a nickname for Clark Kent which is formed as a sobriquet -- an alternative name that is derived from an observable trait.
Remember, there are many mystical ramifications of Names that we've discussed. In Magic for Paranormal Romance you want to build into your World a definition of true-name and a mechanism that describes how finding out the true name and calling a person or thing by that true name actually works.
True Names can be powerful - and so can sobriquets. A sobriquet can mask a true name, or resonate with the person more strongly than the true name.
Many "ordinary people" acquire nicknames as sobriquets.
In the Air Force and other military organizations (like the Space Patrol) the "nickname" often becomes a "call sign."
In Battlestar Galactica "Starbuck" is a call sign and a nickname, a sobriquet.
Native American cultures had the custom of not naming a child until the personality and/or sponsoring animal-god (totem) was evident. In many cases, that name had to be earned by a coming-of-age feat.
What feat did your Main Character execute (maybe in college?) that earned a sobriquet?
Many cultures have various ways of creating layers of "names" for everyone. There's the name you are given -- and the name you earn -- the name plastered upon you by your enemies -- the name awarded by History.
In fact, you find the power of Naming a person also in the Bible as God renames people variously: Abram became Abraham; Sarai became Sarah; Aaron became Aharon; Jacob became Israel (after wrestling with an Angel), and so on and on.
In online communities, people create an Avatar and name it. This custom was also practiced in organized Science Fiction Fandom decades before the internet, and today you can register for the World Science Fiction Convention and give a fannish-name to be inscribed on your badge (so everyone will know who you really are -- as your "real" name would be meaningless.)
Actors (and pole dancers in strip joints) use "stage names."
Undercover Agents adopt and discard names, but think of themselves by one name.
Hackers make an art of adopting or awarding a sobriquet.
Writers use "Pen Names" -- known in journalism as a by line.
All these alternative names are to be considered when naming a character. Each one you use for a character has to be carefully chosen -- it is an art! You don't want "too many" names or the readers will get confused. You might know many sobriquets your character has been known as over his lifetime, but use only one in this story.
In a Romance, intimating a long-disused sobriquet to a lover is a form of revelation, a baring of Character.
The sobriquets your Character has been awarded define both the character and the "circles" in which that character has moved.
The sobriquet then becomes "interesting" because it hints at relevant information yet to be revealed, and at questions such as, "Well, then why aren't you currently moving in Hacker circles?" "Why did you quit playing World of Warcraft?"
So Avatar sobriquets are usually chosen by the person who is known by them, while appelations are chosen by those who love them, or hate them -- or just peripherally know them or have been impacted by their actions.
Adding to or changing a person's NAME has potent magical significance, and that magic makes the Name a source of "springboard" energy for a storyteller.
That's why, very often, the correct first word of a novel -- or even of a pitch for a screenplay or novel -- consists of the character's full name. Consider what you learn of a character whose full, proper name is six names followed by a list of titles.
The Name of a character can be intriguing, interesting, portentous, suggestive.
Referring to our "ripped from the headlines" theme on this blog, I should point out that the conservative commentator Anne Coulter (who writes books, appears on several TV news comment shows, and has her own show) has earned the sobriquet, Firebrand.
Wound up tight within the sobriquet, you will find the Origin Story for your superhero.
Very often, a character will "appear" to a writer out of the blue, and the writer knows that character only by the sobriquet the character reveals. Unraveling that nickname into the Origin Story could easily reveal the powerful springboard for an episodic work.
The sobriquet plastered upon a "Figure" by adversaries or enemies usually contains invective expressing how this Heroic Figure is anathema to the opposition.
The story of how a particular sobriquet was earned, and how that nickname differs from the person's given or family name, makes a terrific subject for a First Novel -- not necessarily the first in the story's own timeline, but the author's first sale to a major outlet.
So let's think a little bit about the earning of a nickname.
The concept "an earned name" speaks to the individuality of a person -- what makes you different from others. Your given name may be in honor of an ancestor and your family name is inherited -- these are names that connect you to the Past, Present, and Future -- they are symbols of the time-binding function of humanity.
The earned name speaks entirely to what makes you different, singular, and identifies you with an achievement or style of achieving.
The sobriquet, therefore, is the element of CHARACTER that "springs forth" to create that character's story.
And since the sobriquet is earned by DOING something -- it therefore connects the story to the plot, (hus showing the reader the bud that will open to the many-petaled flower of the theme.
The meaning of your story is the theme, and the sobriquet of your main or ancillary characters connects that meaning to the event sequence which forms the plot.
So "what he did to earn this sobriquet" is the SHOW that is not a TELL.
Naming characters is a "show-don't-tell" exercise in explaining your theme.
Your theme is what you have to say, which is what this story is about.
Many people think they'd love to write novels, but they just don't know where to start.
One place to start is with the springboard -- and one filament in that board that is flexible enough to bend and then spring up to hurl the reader into the story is the Name of the Main Character.
Inside the theme, which is shown by the Main Character's appellations, lies the sound of your Voice.
The story springboard propels your main character into his "story." It is a "leap" (as in "leap of faith.")
The character jumps off a cliff, dives into a situation. Maybe the Main Character gets fed up and runs away from home, cuts all ties with his past and forges out into the world to create a new identity. In other words, the beginning of the "Origin Story" for your character-sobriquet is where the character "leaps into action."
And all of that is hidden within the Name and attendant sobriquets.
The sobriquet awarded to your Main Character by another character poses the question and hints at the answers.
And therein lies one of the best kept secrets of writing an "interesting" story.
"Interesting" is not you TELLING the reader the story.
"Interesting" is you hinting at stories within stories -- stories untold -- questions lurking in the background but not quite asked.
Reading a novel is an adventure. The best part is not knowing what will happen next.
The novel reader wants to figure out what will happen next just before the Main Character twigs to the tricks being played.
Writing a novel is very much like a teacher using the Socratic Method to teach. You don't TELL the answers. You ASK the questions, and thus SHOW the matter to the students who feel entertained and thus interested.
What does "interesting" mean?
It means something you do not know.
What "interests" people?
Their own ideas, thoughts, and imagination -- theirs, not yours.
Review the tweets cited in this post:
What's in a Name?
Inside a Name you will find an organizing principle for the meaning of an Origin Story.
More examples and exercises on creating story-springboards via Theme-Worldbuilding Integration on January 14, 2014 on this blog.