Fantasy writers have a harder time of it than “serious” novelists. They introduce their readers not only to plots and characters, but entire new worlds, complete with history, geography, language and customs. Typically, a new landscape is sketched and suggested in the first few pages of a fantasy novel — although initial appearances can be deceptive, the reader usually understands fairly quickly whether they’ve landed somewhere medieval Arthurian, matriarchal utopian, wholly unknown or teasingly familiar.
Whether I stride gamely into the new world, ready to sniff the carnivorous flowers, or have to be dragged like a mutinous toddler depends to a great extent on the world’s nomenclature. The names of people, things and places provide insights into the landscape’s familiarity, and hint at intended cultural echoes. They also tell me whether the writer has doled out names you wouldn’t call your hamster to his or her protagonists, countries and fauna. This is usually a deal-breaker.
Names should mean something.
Personally, I don’t subscribe to the convention of making up meaningless / bollocksy / ye olde names (not that I’ve anything against those who do). I really loved the etymology in the books of Gene Wolfe and China Miéville – when names had their roots in, for example, Latin. It didn’t interrupt the read, but could add layers to interpretation and meaning. There was substance for the re-read, and that appealed to my inner geek.
That’s something I’ve tried to follow in my own books, too, except the roots are generally Latin or Old Norse. For example, the name Urtica (a bad dude) is the genus name for the nettle plant. I’ve used a similar approach for the street names in Villjamur, too. The word gata was taken from an Old Norse term for street (edit: and I’m reliably informed it’s still used in Norwegian). To me it helps make the writing process more interesting, and is more than simple exotic flavour. You can also use certain words as a beacon for those who know what they’re looking for.
What do you think? Do you have any favourite names/words? Which authors are good at this sort of thing?