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?

12 comments:

ralfast said...

Irish Mafia?

Marian said...

Oh, there really is an Irish crime family called Harris? That's different. I must have misunderstood - I thought it was a crime family on this side of the pond.

beth said...

Ugh--nothing makes me put down a book faster than a bunch of names I can't pronounce.

writtenwyrdd said...

I think you can have longish names as long as you have them spelled so the reader can decipher them with the first read through.

I notice (and I sometimes do this as well) that modified Everyman names are used a lot, names the are derivatives of role titles for the character. Thus Malice for an evil character and so forth.

What I generally do if I need a name and can't think of one is to come up with a word for a character that describes something about him or her, then modify it.

garridon said...

My pet peeve is unpronouncable names. Years and years ago, I finally got fed up after reading one book where the names were completely unpronouncable. So much so I was having trouble keeping track of who was who. It looked like the writer had picked letters out of a hat. So I wrote a fantasy story and picked names that I liked from a baby book. There might have been three characters total in the story.

Sent it off to a fantasy magazine and got a form rejection with a handwritten note at the bottom. They rejected it because of the names! In hindsight, it was probably the Russian name that did it. Though another magazine did accept the story and publish it.

For my WIP, most of the names have come from a European origin. The more unusual ones (Phannelia) comes out of my family background. One line like unusual and long names (Philander, Herminas, Havilah), so it's been an interesting resource to tap for an occasional name.

My word verification was "relyc." Clearly Google is reading this blog.

Sarpedon said...

I would add names based on Virtues. Now I know in the real world there are people named Prudence and Chastity, but I read a Robin Hobb book where everyone and their dog was named after a virtue. There was Chivalry, and Shrewd, and Regal, and Virtue, and so forth until I wanted to smack someone.

As usual, Terry Pratchett mocked this nicely, by having one of his characters named "Bestiality," explaining that his parents got confused and named their daughters after virtues and their sons after vices.

gypsyscarlett said...

In an attempt to make their world seem different, fantasy writers often go too far making up names.

George R R Martin is a good
example of one who keeps a good balance. I've never blinked at any of his names.

GunnerJ said...

GRRM's names work so well because they're often slightly modified real names. Although he does have a knack for well-thought out naming phonetics. I'm unlikely to forget the title "King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men" because "Andals" and "Rhoynar" somehow really sound like the names of ethnicities.

Actually, just using real names isn't a bad strategy, especially if you're using a real-world culture as a template for a fictional one. If nothing else, common real names have stood the test of actually being used by people. If you're drawing from a real culture, then you have the added benefit of authentic cultural flavor and references to deeper meanings in the names that aren't going to be immediately obvious.

grace said...

re: Plum and Breeze

I think having an oddly-nicknamed character *can* work, if it's only one and it isn't just to be cute. In one of my scrapped novels (scrapped but still oh-so-dear to my heart) there was a character called Fish or The Fish. The story behind it told a lot about him, and the fact that his friends kept calling him Fish told a lot about them. It just worked for him. And characters would react when introduced to him, like, "what? the fish? really?" just to show that it's weird to them as well.

I can't think of an example from a REAL writer, unfortunately. But yeah, I think that can work.

(I miss Fish...)

Marian said...

Hi Grace,

That reminded me of when I used to frequent a certain chatroom where one of the other people had the handle Pisces. So I used to call her "fish". It was me being cute, but because of that I could buy such a nickname in a novel.

It might be more difficult to pull off such a nickname, though, if the character's husband was called Newt or Hook, and if this was meant to be taken seriously.

Marian said...

Hey Sarpedon,

I remember that Robin Hobb book. Never finished it, though - one problem with names like Shrewd is that each time I see them I expect the character to live up to them and do something shrewd or virtuous. The name starts to overshadow the personality.

It's a bit like calling your character Josef Stalin - no matter how kind and compassionate he is, the readers will keep expecting him to do something despotic.

Matera the Mad said...

Was July Name Month? I just dropped in and had to laugh at myself for having an unfinished essay (left lying in the dust by a sinus infection) that (would have) covered a lot of the same territory.

Good rantin'. *grin*

Another thing that gets me is using names -- and characters and plots -- derived from role-playing games, and leaving it so obvious you can hear the dice rolling.