Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Names in fantasy

A few thoughts on names in fantasy stories, in no particular order…

1. The same first and/or last letters to denote names from the same culture

Can work if used carefully and sparingly – and if it seems realistic that everyone in a particular race or society uses the same format in naming their children. It works in the real world when different suffixes denote gender (e.g. Roman names, Japanese names), which is a good reason to stick to a formula.

One problem, though, is that readers sometimes find it difficult to tell characters apart if their names begin with the same letter. And if the names are short on top of that, or end with the same letter as well, this can give them a sameness that doesn’t help. The Vulcans of Star Trek are perhaps the best example of this with names such as Surak, Sybok, Sarek, etc.

2. Cliched names

Some names are cliched from the get-go. When I first started writing fantasy, I had a character called Fox. And yes, he had red hair, however did you guess? I eventually realized that he was about the hundredth character to labor under that particular moniker, and if I revisit that story, he’ll get a name change.

“Raven” and “Hawk” are similar names which are overused in both fantasy and romance. It doesn’t help that people with those names tend to be bold or dashing or darkly lovely; you never get a baker called Hawk or a pregnant seamstress called Raven.

3. Actual names

This one is tricky, since there are actual names of all kinds, but it’s something to keep in mind. I recently read a Watt-Evans novel which had a minor character called Gita, and each time she was mentioned, I pictured an Indian woman in Ethshar. This impression could probably have been corrected if Gita had been fleshed out more. The Gita of the story would have created her own distinct impression in my mind then.

Things I’d like to see, or plan to do:

Both (or more) people in a marriage change their given names to show that they’re married.

Names based on a common theme – for instance, all the villagers or islanders take the names of flowers, gemstones, etc.

Names assigned to people by another land or culture. One thing I liked about Alien Nation was that that the Tenctonese refugees were assigned new names by the US government, and although this was used as humor (Sandy Beach, Gayle Warning, etc), it’s actually a very realistic touch.


On a personal note, I've asked to review The Great Eight by Scott Hamilton, an Olympic gold medalist. The medal was in figure skating, the one sport I follow, so I'm looking forward to reading more about it.


fairyhedgehog said...

Same first letters are a pet hate of mine - I must skim more than I realise.

Both (or more) people in a marriage change their given names to show that they’re married.

I wish that happened in real life! It's a good idea for a fantasy.

Luc2 said...

Yeah, I tried number one (names ending with -ion), it just got too confusing.

One thing I find hard to digest is when exotic names are mixed in with actual names for no apparent reason.

Names can help to enhance worldbuilding. I love the common bastard names GRRM uses, linked to the geography of different areas (Snow, Stone, Rivers, Sand, Flowers and probably one I forgot). That's nifty!

gypsyscarlett said...

Hi Marian,

I agree too many similar names can be confusing and should be avoided. Unless of course, the author does this intentionally for that very effect. (Wuthering Heights comes to mind)

Oh, and congrats on being asked to review the book. Nice! :)

Marian said...

Hey Tasha,

Yes, there was a good reason for having two Catherines in Wuthering Heights, and I had no difficulty telling them apart.

Same for all the C names in Flowers in the Attic - Cathy, Chris, Cory and Carrie. Then again, when I first read that book I was an uncritical teenager. A tired agent might feel differently.

Marian said...

Hey Luc,

I love Martin's common names too.

Snow - for the north
Stone - for the Vale
Storm - for the Narrow Sea
Sand - for Dorne
Flowers - for Highgarden
Rivers - for the riverlands
Pyke - for the Iron Islands (though I'd have liked that one to be "Sea")

Marian said...

Hi fairyhedgehog,

I try to avoid using names with the same first letters. That can be difficult with a large cast of characters, but you soon find yourself using letters that are usually passed over - in my case, letters like U and Y. I have to make a conscious effort to use those to begin names.

Loren said...

Another problem is single names. While they are OK for small-scale societies, they don't work very well for large-scale ones, because many people will end up with the same name. So people end up distinguishing people with the same name in various ways, and these distinctions may then become family names:

John from the woods > John Wood
John the baker > John Baker
John the short > John Short
John son of Jack > John Jackson

And some family names are essentially decorative, like Gold and Silver and Diamond and Flower and so forth.

In some societies, people can pile on the names; consider people from the Roman Republic like Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus.

That's a problem with Star Trek -- lots of people having single names, when one might expect many of them to have multiple names.

Star Trek also has a phonetic stereotype -- many female names ending with -a.

garridon said...

Mine's an urban fantasy set in a fictional country. What I did for one family line is give them the tradition of naming their children with long names like Phannelia (which is a real name from the 1800's). The rest are more European-based.

Though I always end up with names that either sound alike (Babcock/Woodchuck from a previous project) or sound too close to the primary characters (Anton/Elton). Because I do tend to have huge casts, it's very hard keeping similar names out--particularly since even some of the houses have feminine names. So I make a spreadsheet in Excel of all the names so I can make comparions. It also helps me remember some of the longer ones, which don't get used that much.

Marian said...

Loren, I'm thinking Russian names as well for the pile-on effect. Isn't there a middle name which uses the father's first name (there's got to be a word for this, but I can't remember it right now)?

Loren said...

Russians indeed have such a father's-name middle name; such a name is called a patronymic. If one uses one's mother's name in such a name, it's a matronymic.

Thus, the full name of Russia's President is

Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev

where his middle name is the patronymic, most literally Anatoly-ian and more loosely Anatolyson.

Hazardgal said...

My husband's Norwegian ancestors have patronymic (middle names) as well. Not too cumbersome for the men but the women bore names such as Larsdatter instead of Larson. The last name or surname is of their village or community. Kristian Larson Skjeveland is one in his line. You might want to play with the Norwegian system to name your fantasy characters.

Marian said...

I like the idea of taking the name of a city, province or country. Thanks for the tip!

writtenwyrdd said...

Same first letters can be a big mistake. What really bugs me, though, is to have an apparently homogenous culture with names that are waaaay outside that culture. Like having a kid named Loki in a Japanese village. That's extreme, but you do see that now and then.

In a far future sf world, you can do that. Or you can switch up current names.

In a different culture which I make up, I tend to focus more on the common names of new things. I firmly believe in lots of new things that are not found on real Earth, and I like to develop the names according to teh historical context I have imagined for the world.

colbymarshall said...

Makes me desperately want to work Hawk the Baker into my next WIP.

Marian said...

Patronymic, that was the word.

I'll try to come up with one that doesn't sound either too Earth-derived or too Klingon.

And Linda, the spreadsheet sounds like a great idea. I know I have a tendency to use names that are only slightly different from book to book - Alex/Trex, Stas/Stirl.

Pink Ink said...

The names in my contemporary stories usually are first names of family, friends, or former high school classmates.

Marian said...

Hey Pink,

Would you give your friends' or families' names to protagonists/nice characters or to antagonists as well?

Pink Ink said...

Some names I have to make up, for my historicals.

For modern settings, the names I use mostly for protagonists. If I use for antagonists, I usually change the last name or use a combo.

I like remembering people's names from high school, I don't know why. I think it's a way for me to relive the past.

Barbara Martin said...

For exotic characters I use names like Cornelius or Jessop or Edidos. The later I discovered as a manufacturer of iron manhole covers in England, though no longer in business. The name belongs to one of my nastier characters.

Marian said...

I looked through Kanteker's blog and read that in Buddhism, people get different names after they die.

That was intriguing. I'd like to work it into a story somehow.

As for exotic characters, since I write fantasy, all my characters are exotic to some extent. But one thing I keep having to work on are names that distinguish people of one race/country from another.

With one race, I used short names based on musical terms and poetry with letters changed a little - Rhime, Sonet, Verce, Liric, Stanze, etc. I soon started running out of short terms, though. Anyone who wants to suggest any is welcome. :)

Marian said...

Hey Pink,

I once named an antagonist after Stephen King - using just the first name, though.

I'd just finished On Writing and Stephen King seemed like a interesting, flawed but basically decent person in it. So I gave the antagonist his name.

I didn't need any help to identify with the protagonists and treat them fairly, but I did need that with the antagonist, so I think naming him after Stephen King helped. :)

Loren said...

I like the idea of taking the name of a city, province or country. Thanks for the tip!

As a personal name or as a family name? Lots of real-life family names in different languages are "[place]" or "of [place]" or "from [place]" or even "[place]-ian". In some places, like Germany, the "of/from" (German "von") became a title of nobility (Wikipedia article on "von").