Sunday, July 12, 2009
Five more names that don’t work for me
My main peeve with fantasy names is the sort of name exemplified by Jaelle, Lissar, Aerin, and of course Krystalynne. They sound like names I would have liked when I was five years old and wanted to be a unicorn when I grew up. Very few real names have this sort of prettiness, and that might be because it gets cloying.
1. The Evil Emperor Zurg
I recently read a query for a fantasy novel. The protagonists’ names were something like Jeffrey and Lydia, while the antagonist was called Zarg.
This is going to seem like a parody no matter how you slice it (and the query gave the impression that it was a serious heroic fantasy). Worse, it seems like a heavy-handed parody. And it comes off as a throwback to the early days of space operas where the hero always had a wholesome, All-American name while the villain always had something vaguely foreign-sounding that includes the letters Z, X and possibly Q.
The only way I could see this succeeding would be if the writer showed very clearly that these names were selected with tongue in cheek and with the writer being fully aware of their implications, but using them in an insightful or amusing way. Maybe names in the characters’ world have status based on the initial letters, so slaves’ names always begin with an A while emperors and gods have Z names.
2. Nammmes that are diffficult to pronnnounce
It should have been enough of a warning when I read of an alien race called the “V'ornn” in Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ring of Five Dragons. Repeated consonant, check. Apostrophe in the middle of the name, check. But I kept reading and found names like “Rekkk” and “Wennn Stogggul”.
I’m not sure there’s any way to pull off a naming system like this. The best that could be said of it is that it’s consistent and it’s not something encountered on Earth. Other than that, I think it’s better not to make the reader have to consult the pronunciation guide in the back of the book.
The first time I read Tolkien, I didn’t know that Celeborn was pronounced with a hard C – i.e. “Keleborn”. But I didn’t need to stop reading to figure out how to mentally say the name. And when I read up on pronunciation, it was out of interest in Tolkien’s world rather than because that was the only way to continue reading the book.
3. Moniker indicates alignment
I’ve read books where an evil female character was called Malice (Homeland, R. A. Salvatore) and Mallice (Duncton Found, William Horwood). Then, because I obviously wasn’t thinking too much, I named an antagonist Malis.
This could still work for me, but only in the right context – in a relatively traditional fantasy and when the names are kept subtle. I’d rename “Malis”, for instance, because that signals to readers that this is an evil, evil person. And although she can be, I want readers to see matters from her point of view as well, which won’t be easy with a name that proclaims a quality quite so loudly.
4. Weird nicknames
In Shirley Conran’s Tiger Eyes, the heroine and her husband (who are white and Anglo-Saxon if not Protestants) are called Plum and Breeze.
Even given that these are nicknames, each time I read them they reminded me of haiku. Normally I like exotic names for heroines when I read erotic romances or sex-and-shopping novels. Pagan (Lace, Shirley Conran), Jazz (Dazzle, Judith Krantz) and Blaze (Blaze Wyndham, Bertrice Small) sound fine. More than that, they sound exciting and vivid.
But Plum? Makes me think of a plump, motherly type taking a pie out of the oven. Either that or a character in Cluedo.
5. The Corleones vs. the Harrises
I can’t remember whether I read this in a query letter or a published novel, but it was an organized crime family with the last name of Harris.
Is it possible to have a realistic Mafia clan with the last name of Harris? I suppose so. In the hands of a skilled enough writer, anything’s possible. But really, aren’t there enough challenges already in creating the suspension of disbelief without adding to them?