A work by any other name

I’ve always struggled with choosing titles for my written work. A lot rides on a title, so I have have standards for them that I’ve never been that good at meeting. They are the symbol of and the reference by which the work is known, so it should appropriate and worth to represent piece’s soul and quality.

A title needs many things. It must be easy to say and remember. It needs to sound good, with the right ring to be appealing. It can’t be too generic, or it won’t seem special to that story or stick in people’s minds. And it needs to really sum up the work it stands for, in a quick, catchy way. That’s a pretty tall order! Which is why I find it so challenging to come up with titles I’m satisfied with.

I tend to default to naming my stories after their protagonist. It’s often the easiest way to come up with a short, punchy, indicative title that sounds okay. I do choose pretty good character names, so at least they have a ring to them. “Mrs. Hawking,” for example. But they’re definitely on the obvious rather than the clever end of things.

The sort of titles that impress me most are those that use a non-literal idea that somehow represents the spirit of the story. Like, if you know what idea the title represents, you can see how that idea represents something important to the piece. The closest I’ve ever come to that sort of memetic title is “Base Instruments,” the name of Mrs. Hawking part three. A major theme of that story is people whose grandest ambitions and purposes demand perfection, but they are forced to confront the fact that human imperfections will always limit them. But, as Mrs. Hawking says, “Our instruments are base ones, but they are all God gives us for the task.”

Generally I’m not a fan of the “title drop” in the dialogue. It was supposedly a feature of the traditional “well-made” plays, like “Sometimes I feel like a cat on a hot tin roof!” But I usually find it so awkward and self-conscious, like it grinds the story’s momentum to a halt as it takes you out of the flow. But I included that because most of my early readers didn’t see the title’s relevance without it, and I think that phrasing keeps it a bit more of a natural piece of dialogue than if I just reproduced the actual construction in the name.

I also tend to like titles with a slight note of irony, I find. It’s usually not obvious, but I like knowing that the ones I pick both represent the story and yet also hint at an important conflict in their inaccuracy, if you know what I mean. All the Mrs. Hawking titles have this. “Mrs. Hawking” is the protagonist’s name, but identifying her in terms of her marriage is in no way accurate to the person that she is. “Vivat Regina” is a patriotic expression means “Long live the queen,” but the hero of that story strongly disapproves of the queen and all she stands for. And as I said, “Base Instruments,” refers to human limitations compromising the perfection of enterprise, but still the people confronting this truth possess truly exquisite instruments nonetheless.

The best one I’ve ever come up with— as is often the case with this piece, I find —is in my opinion “Adonis.” Punchy, evocative, representative, mellifluous, recognizable, and with that delicious undertone of irony. Adonis refers to our protagonist Aidan, and yet it doesn’t— it refers to an artificial personality that was forced on him, one that he resents, and stands for the major problem of his life. That’s a lot to ask from a single word, and yet it achieves all that. It’s good enough that I have no idea what to call the subsequent installments of the story, because I don’t know what else could ever be as good.

Bernie also recently brought up the issue of titles not just for individual works but for series. They present an additional level of challenge, because they have to sum up an entire collection of stories. With my own, I tend to default to the title of the first work, referring to them as “the Mrs. Hawking series” or “the Adonis trilogy.” The only good one I’ve ever devised is “Breaking History,” the collective name I gave to everything within my greater historical fiction universe, which includes the Hawking stories, the collection around The Stand, and the greater Fairfield family.

Some random titles I admire, ignoring those named explicitly for their protagonist or for the obvious setting. Game of Thrones is excellent, definitely better than the series name, so I’m not surprised that the TV adaptation chose to go with that rather than A Song of Ice and Fire. Halo, for the video game, is one of the most exquisite titles I’ve ever encountered for any creative work ever. I do not like puns, however, which cuts out a huge chunk of possibilities. I haven’t watched Orphan Black, so I don’t know if it’s representative, but just on ring alone that’s fantastic. Boardwalk Empire is great. Lost is super punchy. I rarely like long titles, except as a joke about how long they are. Hark, a Vagrant!, the comic by Kate Beaton, I always loved for its specific bizarre awkwardness. So I can appreciate things outside my box. But I’m so particular about it, and the way they strike my ear can really influence my impression of the work.

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