Tuesday, June 10, 2008


A few thoughts on names that haven’t worked for me, and why.

1. Apostrophes or random capital letters

Capital letters occurring in the middle of names make it look as though you’re writing in Klingon, or they can make the names come off as artificially fancy – fanfiction stories are full of names like MoonFlower. Apostrophes can make names difficult to pronounce. A name like Stephen looks better than StePhen or Ste’phen, and if the writing and the characterization is good enough, the readers won’t need the additional decoration to the name to remind them that they’re reading a fantasy.

2. Letter substitutions

Some names in fantasy novels have the letter i replaced with a y. Characters called Lysa, Tym, Myranda, Quentyn, Martyn and Mya appear in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Yce and Fyre - I mean, Ice and Fire. Fortunately the cast of characters is so large that these don’t really stand out, but I also came across a romance novel where the heroine and hero are called Apryll and Devlynn. Why anyone would go thys far, Y have no ydea.

3. Names that are out of place

I’ve seen a character called Ace in a heroic fantasy – and I don’t think the writer was aiming for a parody here. Names like Carnival or Faraday or Priam*, in worlds which don’t have carnivals, famous physicists or the Iliad, can also shatter the suspension of disbelief because they’re so jarring against the context of the fantasy background. And there’s seldom a good reason to remind people that they’re reading a novel, as opposed to being fully immersed in a world. In Margaret Weis’s Mistress of Dragons, a king who cheats on his wife has two sons called Wilhelm and Harry. This might have been intended as humor, but after I read it, I kept thinking of Prince Charles in fantasyland. That ruined the sex scene, too.

4. Names without a common theme

This nearly threw me off when I first started reading A Game of Thrones, since I was wondering if there was a pattern to the Anglo-Saxon names (Robert, Joanna), the Spanish name (Jaime), the slightly-modified names (Catelyn, Petyr) and the whole-cloth-of-fantasy monikers (Daenerys, Cersei). But the story was so good that I was drawn into it before I could become confused, and now I no longer wonder about the logic of names. That’s just part of the Martinverse.

This may not apply to new writers, though, or to those of us who may not have as gripping and powerful a tale to tell. It’s a good idea, therefore, to have consistency or recognizable patterns to names. This is also a way to distinguish characters of different races. In Roger Eldrige’s novel The Shadow of the Gloom-World, all the cavern folk are named after plants and flowers. In books with a large cast of characters, or with people of different races and nationalities, this helps readers keep the characters straight.

*See Scar Night, by Alan Campbell, and The Wayfarer Redemption, by Sara Douglass


Angela said...

Can I add the unpronouncible ones? I can't stand those Lord Va-Hanrajka types some writers insist upon in fantasy. *screams*

MikeB said...

So, a name like Asha'man might cause some problems? I can't imagine that... :)

Marian said...

So, a name like Asha'man might cause some problems?

Ah, that would be from the Rob'ert Jo'rdan s'eries, rig'ht?

Apostrophes in names aren't bad if they're there for a good reason - as opposed to aping a trend in fantasy without putting any reasoned or original twist to it. In Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels, men who Impress a dragon drop the first vowel from their names and replace it with an apostrophe. If they lose the dragon, they use their original names. It's not complex, but at least there's a reason for it. I'm not sure there's such a reason in the Wheel of Time novels. I'm also not sure about the difference in pronunciation between "Ashaman" and "Asha'man". Hey, maybe Asha!man is an African tribe which can do that tongue click? But Asha.man is obviously female, because of the period.

OK, I'll behave now. :)

kiwi said...

Marian, you should have studied as a social linguist with a functionalist (as opposed to formalist) bent, with insights like this:

"I'm also not sure about the difference in pronunciation between "Ashaman" and "Asha'man". Hey, maybe Asha!man is an African tribe which can do that tongue click? But Asha.man is obviously female, because of the period."

Next you'll be talking about differentiating the pronunciation and speech patterns of members of different cultures in a story. :)

Wonderful post, as always.


Loren said...

I've found lots of sites on name origins; too many to list here. These include lots of sites on names in various ethnicities and nationalities. It could be worth looking at them and noting their patterns.

Many personal names are compounds, like the Germanic names with "wolf" in them. And there are lots of names that feature various deities, like many Biblical names.

Family names also have many sources. A common form is "son of (someone)"; others are occupations ("Smith", Miller", "Baker"), social position ("Freeman"), physical features ("White", "Brown", "Black"), locations ("London"), and even prettification and conceit ("Ruby", "Diamond", "Flower", "King").

I once found out that many languages have family names that are versions of "King"; German Koenig, French Leroi, Spanish Del Rey, Polish Krol, Arabic Malik, Indian Rao, Chinese Wang, ...

Bernd Schneider's page on Star Trek cultural inconsistencies notes that a large number of Star Trek female names end in a (Kara, Deela, Kelinda, Lenara, ...).

Although that is common in southern and eastern Europe and in the Middle East, that is not very common elsewhere; in India, many male names end in a and female names in i. And France ended up with lots of male names ending in vowels and female names ending in consonants because of dropping of final sounds. There are also places like China, Korea, and Japan where there aren't any such stereotypical endings for either sex.

He also noted that many ST societies featured people with only single names, which is rare in the large-scale societies of recent centuries. Curiously, that is also common in fantasy.

Some premodern societies did have wonderfully multiple names, like the Roman Republic. Names like Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Major.

Finally, societies with multiple names differ in their ordering. In our part of the world, the personal name comes before the family name, while in China and Korea and Japan, it's the reverse, changing my name from Loren Petrich to Petrich Loren and making Yoko Ono originally Ono Yoko.

Angela said...

I think the other thing to consider is the frequency of the odd names. If you have one character with a different type name (or a title) then readers usually don't think anything of it; in fact it helps set that character us as unique (so use those strange names wisely!). But if each character has some odd sounding/unpronouncible name...*screams*

Marian said...

I just remembered another kind of name that didn't work for me - the triple-consonant kind in Eric Lustbader's Pearl series. There were names like "Rekkk" and "Batoxxx", and I couldn't focus on the story because I was mentally pronouncing the guy's name "Reh-kuh-kuh-kuh". Then I found the glossary in the back which said that the name was pronounced "Rawk".

I thought, why not just write the name as Rawk then, instead of the triple-consonant thing? The Publishers Weekly review described this as "names more easily gargled than remembered".

Marian said...

But if each character has some odd sounding/unpronouncible name...*screams*

Or even just each character having the same structure when it comes to names. The names of the Clan people in Jean Auel's first book are simple (or simplistic) but I don't find it easy to remember who Aga, Aka, Ika, Uka, Uba and Ura are as individuals.