Thursday, June 12, 2008
Names, the sequel
Here are a few thoughts on coming up with names in fantasy novels. In some real-world cultures, people take their father’s first name – a patronymic – and sometimes, more rarely, their mother’s name. This could be an alternative to a family name, or it could be used in addition to the family name. The family name could also come first, with the personal name second; perhaps that symbolizes the group being more important than the individual? Some immigrants take a new Western first name to go with their original names (which may be more difficult to pronounce) and this can be adapted to a fantasy culture, adding depth to the character as well.
Whose last name do children take, by the way – the father’s or the mother’s? Some combination of both, or none? Maybe they have a last name that distinguishes them as children until they hit puberty, when they decide whose family name they would like to have. Maybe boys take their father’s name and girls take their mother’s name. There are plenty of possibilities, and I’d love to see more of these in fantasy novels.
The most imaginative naming system I’ve ever come across was in Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure series, where one character has a flower name (Ylin Ylan), a court name (Shar Zarin), a child name (Zozi), a friend name (Derl) and a secret name (L’lae). Basically, she has different names for different situations and circumstances. This would be a great way to get around the common problem of characters having only a single name. If the Vance naming system was applied to people here and now, they might have family names, community names, workforce names, church names and stranger names. They already have Internet names.
Names in the real world are wonderfully diverse – Marie Curie, Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosis Cunctator, Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan and Viktor Vasilovich Petrenko, to name but a few. Fantasy novels can do no less.
Digression : one reason I like unusual approaches to naming is because I’m originally from Sri Lanka, and in my family, children have Westernized first names but traditional middle names. The middle names are for common use. So while I lived in Sri Lanka and then in Dubai, everyone called me by my middle name.
Then I went to college in the States, and everyone there addressed me by my first name, Marian. I was too shy at first to correct them, and by the time I’d got over that, I was used to Marian. And after a while I started liking it. I’d crossed over from the east to the west and I had a new name to mark the passage. These days, I’m Marian all the time, and can’t imagine being anyone else. :)