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What determines the "true name" of a being?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Chasejxyz, Apr 28, 2021.

  1. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

    This isn't about a project of mine but discussing this type of magic in general. The thing that I don't really get (and what probably turns me off from using it in general) is what determines the true name of an individual? It's usually plot-relevant because someone is stuck in a spell/magical contract that utilized their true name, but they do something to change it, usually falling in love, and their name changes and they're free now.

    As someone who's transgender, I've used multiple names throughout my life, both in a day-to-day/"common law" sense and a legal sense. It takes quite awhile to change all your documents, so there's a period of time where you can exist as both legal names (some states forbid ever changing your birth certificate, so you will always exist as your "old self" forever, in some situations). So would a trans character's true name change when they come out to the world? When they come out to themselves? When they start presenting as the other gender? When they start passing? Why would you be given (by the powers that be) a true name for gender A when you are truly gender B?

    It also doesn't really make much sense to me due to the Buddhist concept of "no-self," which is that there is no fixed "you." It's sort of like the ship of Theseus, the first part you switch makes it a different boat from the original, plus as you use the boat it wears down, accumulates barnacles, different people work on it...every moment the boat is slightly different than the one before, as is any individual. Even "falling in love" is a gradual process, at what point is someone's true name changed? Is it a sudden switch or slower evolution? Is a juvenile high school love just as powerful as your "one true soulmate"? Are aromantics just screwed?
  2. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Auror

    How are you defining true name?

    When you describe the true name concept, the first thought that comes to my mind is the way it works in Ursula K. Leguin's stories, like Earthsea (and she borrowed the concept from Native American cultures where such things are the custom). In that case, a person's true name is only known to themself, and the person who gave it to them, and anyone they choose to disclose it to, which is very rare. You have to trust someone A LOT to tell them your true name. The name they go by is not their true name.

    To this day, some Native American tribes still follow that practice. What's changed is that their go by names are now names common in the colonizer culture: Peter, Sarah, Joe, etc. Their true names are in the indigenous language and kept secret.

    I don't know if true names are necessarily gendered. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't, maybe they are in some cultures but not others. I suppose you could have a non-gendered true name and a gendered name that you're called by. If you make a gender transition, maybe you'd change the name you go by but not your true name.
  3. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    Usually, in mysticism or fictional magic, a “true name” refers to the name of one’s soul.
    With transgenderism, a change in gender/sex/whatever wouldn’t change the true name. In fact, logically, even death and reincarnation wouldn’t change the true name as the soul isn’t dependent on the physical body. It’s more co-dependent, I guess. Like symbiotic.

    I mean, I guess there’s a question of whether or not souls can have genders and thus gendered names but that’s not totally related to this thread.

    I’ve done some research on the subject since I utilized true names in my book but I got goofy with it so my characters have true names like Jam Glamorous and Talks-Loud Says-Nothing. I guess I went for gender-neutral true names to make it easier.
  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I don't have an answer to your direct question, and I don't know if this'll help.

    I was originally going to use True Names in my Smughitter story, but it evolved quite a bit into something almost completely different as I thought more about how it tied into all the other aspects of my magic system. The idea was that a an evil ... ehh, we'll call it a male witch for simplicity right now, would use one of my two sprite's true names to threaten the other one into obedience, and the characters would have to spend all of book 3 finding a way to obey while subverting the requests and defeating the baddie.

    I'd like to still use a version of that plotline. But now, instead of a true name, many characters once inscribed their names onto special stones that store fairy magic from the fairy otherworld. This connects them to that stored magic and lets them draw extra magic from the stones sometimes, although they are running dry. Now the idea is that the witch-type character has to find the character's inscription on the stones, and use their magic to hack into the connection and sabotage the sprite through it.

    When a fairy writes their name, they only use 1 name. They write it in cursive. But around their name, they write a series of symbols, each representing an adjective that they've picked up over their lives, both given by others and chosen for themselves, but ultimately ones that the person accepts. It would be like saying "Devor, the smart, the lazy, the know-it-all" or whatever. In addition, while these inscribed names used to be public, the sprites have all taken new names, since they had to register with the human nation after their kingdom fell apart, and their "real name" is hard to find.

    So what it came down to, the "True Name" shifted into a name that they chose to inscribe at a given important moment in their lives, like something of a coming-of-age ceremony, one which boosted their magic.
  5. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror


    Anyways, I really dig the idea of a “true name” being written down in such a way that you can add words to it (or get rid of aspects of it) and that would be reflected in the character. Or the name can change as things happen to the character.

    I had planned to do something like that in my book but, unfortunately, the “true name” element of the story gradually got less and less relevant as I was outlining the book.
  6. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    No.... witch is much closer. I'm using the term Bodach, and their schtick is "igniting" fairy magic, which warps its target while taking control of them and also raising their own power level. In one case, told in dialogue, a 12 year old boy "fell in love" with a Nymph and transformed himself into a Bodach in order to win her and control her. He ended up looking like a warped old man, and the Nymph turned into a monster, and both had to be killed. One of the reasons I moved away from true naming was to better develop the Bodach.
  7. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

    Say you're sitting on a tree branch and you have a saw in hand. If you saw at the branch how long until it breaks? It'd depend on how thick the branch is and how much you weigh, wouldn't it?

    I like the Dresden Files take on true names. Mortals change too much, as pointed out in the Buddhist concept you mentioned, and as a result their true name comes with a built in use by date.

    In such a case falling in love or one's relationship with gender might speed up the rate of change, but simply the accumulation of experience would be enough. As for breaking a true name curse by realizing that we're not one person from one moment to the next or that no combination of names can fully encompass the extent of one's existence, well, it's easy to say that but harder to know it to the point that it'd sink down into your bones. It'd make a good climax to a true name curse arc though.

    Now, as for my own setting. In it one of the functions of souls is to serve as a magical immune system. There's all sorts of bad luck or fragments of ancient hexes floating about for it to fight off. As you level up that gets stronger. It gets to the point that if you get turned into a toad in the middle of battle it'll only last a few seconds before the soul fights it off.

    For a long lasting curse it requires one of three things;

    1) strong enough curse power that the magical immune system can't fight it off.

    2) some situation that results in the soul "accepting" the curse. Effectively it's like having the keys to the house.

    3) Beating them down enough through some combination of physical, emotional or mental damage that the soul can't muster up enough resistance. This one is for stuff like a legendary hero winding up in the body of a cat after losing a battle against the big bad during the backstory.

    A true name would be an example of #2 in that case. Similarly other classically witch-y tactics like agreeing to a magical deal or breaking some "rule" (like trespassing in the witch's lair) would fall under that. A true name would be a key to the soul while the other two are like opening the door yourself.
    Chasejxyz likes this.
  8. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    the magicians of the ancient world were obsessed with the 'true names' of assorted demons, deities, and other spirits - the belief being that possession of such an entities true name granted the magician power over said entity.

    I borrowed this notion for my worlds. While writing 'Empire' I had to confront what the name actually meant to the being attached to it. My conclusion was that the 'true name' serves as a sort of title, a list of deeds and alliances and other relationships that defines that entity in comparison to others of the same sort. To the entity in question, the True Name is literally the only thing that really matters.
  9. LCatala

    LCatala Minstrel

    Yeah, "true names" is pretty much a debunked notion in linguistics. Names are labels, and labels are arbitrary in relation to the thing they're applied to. The essence of a dog is not to be called "dog", it's still a dog if you call it "chien", "ci", "pies", "koira" or "köpek"; and reciprocally, there is no inherent dogness to the word "dog" — "the word 'dog' doesn't bark" (Saussure).

    For fantasy of course, you can use the concept however you want — and also not use it at all if you find that it is unconfortable, has unfortunate implications, or simply doesn't make sense to you.

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