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N: naming conventions

November 3, 2011

I have not written fiction before, so there are many aspects of the process that are not only new to me, but I also don’t have any tools that I know how to use, so I keep getting hung up on how to start.

Names are a good example. I decided that I could better picture a character, start getting a feel for who they are and what matters to them, if they first had a name. It only took me a few days to come up with a first and last name and rudimentary family history for my human protagonist.

But when I started thinking of bacteria, I wondered if I needed to first establish naming conventions, that might apply to any bacteria who might be characters. And since I do not yet feel comfortable with my knowledge about bacteria, I didn’t know what to use as a beginning place. Can bacteria hear? If so, names might be sounds they hear, or sounds they can make. Do they make sounds? If they do make sounds, do they have language? Would they want meaning for their names, or just unique combinations of noises? If they can’t hear or talk, maybe their names should be based upon smell, or taste, or something else. Except how could I represent that? I’m a human being using words, so I still need descriptions of something.

Thinking like this was a maze, and I got lost in it, for days. None of that time was spent thinking about actual characters whom I might write about.

I mentioned all of this to Spouse, and hir response was, “imagine Bob the bacterium. Bob looks up at the moon. Could there be bacteria living there? Bob knows (?) that bacteria live in all sorts of inhospitable places. So maybe there are bacteria on the moon. Why not? Maybe there’s a bacterium on the moon right now, wondering if there are bacteria on Earth.”

Oddly enough, this scenario gave me a feel for a bacterium character. I’m not sure I can justify naming them “Bob”, but I don’t have any better ideas!

What do you think?  Any suggestions or thoughts would be welcome.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2011 03:06

    Have you read the Elysium cycle by Joan Slonczewski? The books are: A Door Into Ocean, Daughter of Elysium, The Children Star, and Brain Plague.

    I really enjoyed them, and more to the point of this entry, she has sentient bacteria.

    The bacteria communicate amongst themselves with light flashes I think. And they name themselves with numbers. But later, in the last two books, they inhabit humans (symbiotic relationship) and can communicate with their human hosts. They still use numbers for their own names, but the human gives some of them names.


    The way bacteria in the real world communicate is by having sex. They merge, share helpful dna with each other, and then separate again. Bacteria can share dna with any other bacteria. They are able to detect other bacteria in their environment. You can think of their dna sharing as “downloading apps”. 🙂 They really are quite clever creatures. Wikipedia article. Follow the links in the references, or google around about microbial intelligence. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microbial_intelligence.

    I’d recommend choosing random strings of letters that you can vaguely pronounce. Make them different enough that your readers can keep your characters straight. There are some good “random name generators” out there, ones that can generate human names, and ones that can generate “alien sounding” names.

    Human names: http://www.behindthename.com/random/
    Fantasy names: http://www.rinkworks.com/namegen/
    This site has a zillion different generators: http://www.seventhsanctum.com/index-name.php

    • November 6, 2011 12:48

      Hi Pthalo,
      I am actually a big fan of Joan Slonczewski’s books, and count her among my inspirations for my novel (see my 10.23 blog post for more books that also helped me come up with the idea).

      I like your ideas for naming them, though! I’ll have to see what I can come up with.

      And I’ve been reading a lot of books and online articles about bacteria lately. Now I probably need to befriend a microbiologist or two. 

  2. Ian permalink
    November 6, 2011 03:48

    I suspect you won’t find evidence of communication in creatures that don’t have a reason to be social.

    There are social amoebae, and they must do some communicating. Dictyostelids are an interestingly weird example. When short on food, they assemble themselves together as a “slug” that crawls along as if it were one organism. For the human equivalent, Clive Barker’s horror story In the Hills, the Cities.

    I’m not an expert, but I’d expect that slime molds like Dictyostelids communicate by chemical cues, primarily. “sweet SWEET salty bitter sweet poison sweet” would be a first guess as a name.

    • November 6, 2011 13:00

      Hi Ian,

      Many different species of bacteria cooperatively form communities known as biofilms (like dental plaque). Like slime molds, bacteria also communicate via quorum sensing, “using one common language to communicate with different bacterial species, and other, unique languages to talk to siblings.” (http://publications.nigms.nih.gov/insidelifescience/bacterial_chatter.html)

      Slime molds are another one of my favorite organisms, which I studied during grad school.

      I like your idea for name ideas too. Thank you for suggesting it!

  3. inquisitiveraven permalink
    November 6, 2011 14:27

    Bacteria communicate by chemical signaling. It’s probably more analogous to scent than any other human sense. You may find this TED talk to be of interest.

    Now unless your story depends on individual bacteria being characters, I’d be inclined to suggest that your bacterial characters should be colonies rather single organisms. Also, since it’s kinda difficult to reproduce chemical signals in written language, maybe identify colonies by location, or develop a naming convention that’s clearly not based on a an existing language.

    I’ve seen stories about sapient viruses where colonies of viruses inhabit a host and the colonies are identified by the host, where a sapience requires a minimum colony size. Perhaps you could do something similar with your bacteria.

    • November 6, 2011 21:02

      Hi inquisitiveraven,

      I had read a short article about Bonnie Bassler’s work with quorum sensing, but the TED talk was a lot more specific, and even more fascinating.

      I think you may be right about colonies versus individuals, but I’m not sure how to write an aggregate character. More experimenting will be needed.

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