discussions genre stuff

Fantasy Names

The Guardian has an interesting blog on names in fantasy literature:

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?

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

24 replies on “Fantasy Names”

hmm…I mostly agree with the Guardian article about Harry Potter names – I’ve mixed feelings, but especially for the spell, the names are often very good.

For the most part names in a series only jump out when they are very bad, otherwise they tend to blend in – which is a good thing.

Authors who do it well:

Robert Jordan immediately comes to mind. He did lots of research into cultures, mytholgy, legend, religion, etc. when coming up with his names. And they blend in well – just different enough to be other-worldly, but not so different as to stand out.

Another author that does well is Steven Erikson – in his Malazan novels, it’s rather mixed. But the shorter novellas set in the Malazan world, and The Lees of Laughter’s End in particular, have absolutely brilliant names.

Absolutely Gene Wolfe – especially the way he reuses existing names and words in interesting ways (destrier, arquebus, oubliette…).
Also, the article mentions Le Guin, and that gets a definite hell yeah from me. Everything about that setting was so damn evocative.
I don’t mind the apostrophes in McCaffery so much, but the dragon names irritated me – or rather, the fact that they required a pronunciation guide irritated me (Mnementh? Buh?)
Now I’m off to write the continuing adventures of my barbarian hero, ””””””’

Mervyn Peake – his names feel very Dickensian without being too obvious and they do make it very clear to new readers what sort of world they’re entering into.

Also Gene Wolfe, who I need to reread. The Guardian article mentions Garner, whose writing I love, but I’d really never thought of from that angle.

Neth – with Robert Jordan, did the names mean something or were they to help with the aesthetics, do you know?

Paul – yes, I forgot about Vance, largely because I’ve read too little (Dying Earth, of course).

Sam – McCaffery… indeed. I’ll not rant here. I read only the one Pern novel and that nearly scarred me for life.

Tom – that’s brilliant. You should have taken a photo of the sign.

Aishwarya – I think with Wolfe, it’s the reread that really brings up a lot of new things. And Peake… this summer, for the third attempt, I shall conquer Gormenghast.

Names should definitely mean something, I agree. They should reflect a the culture from which they come from. I mean, I think a few readers might bat an eye when they read about the conqueror of ages and revered scholar of Barra-Kholth: Steve.

Technically, we do write fantasy, don’t we? While there’s a definite trend toward interpreting “low/gritty fantasy” as being a recreation of medieval England with new politics, I don’t think we need to be wringing our hands worriedly over whether a guy from a fantastic culture has a fantastic name.

But I’ve noticed a sort of subconscious desire in the readership to look for these flaws, perhaps to address them before they come out in an attempt to stymie criticism from mainstream literature. I’m not quite sure why we have to act as though we need to please people who don’t read fantasy.

@Mark I’d say that it’s hard to tell just how much the names mean. On the most basic level, many of the names of bigger characters are clearly different versions of names out of mythology. But there have been some articles written about names in the Wheel of Time that look at the root(s) for all the names and some fascinating parallels emerge. But then you have to be real fan of WOT to appreciate them.

I like names that have an otherworldly feel but aren’t’ too complicated for me to remember. I recently read a fantasy book where the characters all had very modern sounding names, and this put me off a bit.

Sam – that last paragraph is a very interesting point. I think there’s some definite subconscious ‘guilt’ of some shade for liking genre, and we turn our focuses externally. But analysing these things is a much better way of going about it than the old way which was “ZOMG I love fantasy it’s great entertainment everyone else can screw themselves” passive-agressive answer. The act of betterment is, surely, a good thing?

Neth – thanks for the clarification. It’s been years since I read the books (and only then the first three).

Did anyone read the first comment though? Genius! My vote goes for Le Guin. I also love the names of the characters in the prince of nothing series. Anasurimbur Kelhus and Drusas Achamian. Not difficult to say and yet totally different. I once read a book (I think it was Chaz Brenchley? Not sure), where a female character was called Tigrinia, which is the language spoken in Eritrea where I’m from, so that didn’t work for me at all..

@Sam – I do actually have a Troll called Joseph, but that’s only because his race adopted easier-sounding Christian names after being converted by Catholic missionaries.

All my other names are created by how they sound rather than how they look on the page. Nothing worse than an unpronounceable name with lots of apostrophes

Well, don’t get me wrong, to blindly accept any fantasy as glorious simply because it’s fantasy is about as dismissive and silly as ignoring all fantasy for fear that it will infect the mainstream master race with genre disease. At the same time, though, I don’t think there’s any shame in knowing what you like and reading that.

To be brief: a good story is a good story. Names are just sort of a garnish on top of it all. If a good story has good names, ones that reflect the culture, it’s just a delightful little side bit that makes you that much more pleased with a book. If a bad story has bad names, then it’s just that much more aggravating.

In a way, it’s almost like a social phenomenon in fantasy reading (similar to cover art). There are books out there that have a host of problems with the writing and story where reviewers will harp on the terrible naming.

So, yes, let’s analyze it. Let’s figure out why some names work and others don’t. But let’s not fall into the trap of dismissing a book because it has a weird name here and there or reeling in horror over the fact that an otherworldly fantasy book may (gasp) have names not found on this world.

@Stefan: You’ve pretty much stumbled across the golden rule there, haven’t you? An otherworldly name doesn’t have to be loaded with apostrophes and weird naming conventions.

Personally, whenever I want to name someone, I just sort of use the sound they make and go off that.

I think names in fantasy should not be to difficult. And unfortunately there seems to be a lot of apostrophes floating around. I don’t know who started it, but sometimes it seems like there’s a consensus that apostrophes make anything fantasy. And I dont like it.

I’m Norwegian so I thought I’d supply you with some additional information on something Mark wrote.

The word “gata” is still in everyday use in Norwegian. It is interchangeable with “gaten”, they mean “the street”. As in “Kirkegata”=”The Church Street”.

And as for the Norse language often being used in fantasy, take a look at this and see if you recognize any names in 10-15.(A little note “Eikenskjalde” at the end of 13 would be “Oakenshield” in English.)

I suppose I really like names that look like this world refracted (that’s what fantasy *is*) and belong to some coherent system(s) – one more clue about the worldbuilding to figure out.

Jordan’s names are pretty good for almost-recognisability and graduations of difference, on the whole. Although I never fail to be distracted when an Aes Sedai (magic’n’politics woman) called Jolene shows up…

Now that there’s Google, I do wish authors would check the names. Did Tom Lloyd *really* mean to name a womanising knight after a South Slavic woman called Vesna…?

I prefer to not have to fight associations I already have with “real” names. For example, my brother’s name being Sam very much influenced my experience of the character Samwise Gamgee. I’d like to be able to get to know a character the way the author intended. Granted I’ll eventually form my own personal opinion of that character, but starting with a clean slate is important.

Stefan – yeah, there’s almost a painful approach to making things seem alien with punctuation rather than vocab.

Sam – “There are books out there that have a host of problems with the writing and story where reviewers will harp on the terrible naming.” Yes, I see what you mean now. A distraction from the real problems?

Ole – thanks for bringing that to my attention. My Scandinavian dialects aren’t what they used to be. 🙂

Adrian – agreed!

Hampshire – yes, you would think that Google makes it easier to check these things. It certainly makes it easier to do research on them, at least.

Nette – that seems a common gripe with fantasy fiction. Many readers really like that utterly-secondary-world immersion, and anything that rips that away is seen as a failing. I don’t fully agree with that – if it’s used properly, rather than lazily.

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