Wednesday, July 15, 2009
More thoughts on names
Since my last post was on names that don’t work for me, I thought I’d write a little about names that do. As GunnerJ mentioned, most of those in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire are well-chosen, especially when it comes to indicating familial relationships. Considering how many characters appear in these novels, the idiosyncratic naming conventions of some of those families help readers to remember who belongs where.
On the other hand, Martin is still careful to distinguish the most important individuals within those families. So even though the Targaryens past have used names like Rhaella, Rhaenyra and Rhaenys, the last Targaryens are called Rhaegar, Viserys and Daenerys. The connections between their names are still clear, but it’s much less likely that the names will blend into each other.
Similarly, although the Frey family often names sons “Walder”, they’re distinguished with some addition to the name. Hence characters such as Big Walder, Little Walder, Black Walder, Red Walder, Bastard Walder and so on.
Speaking of nicknames, these can be tricky. I recently read a story where an alien had a nickname based on the initials of his names after they were translated into English, which would have been fine except for the whole “alien” part. There was no conceivable reason why he would have accepted such a nickname, since he wasn’t at all interested in human culture or trying to blend in.
The antagonist of Dean Koontz’s The Bad Place has a much more interesting nickname. He’s a vicious, unstoppable monster (the antagonist, not Dean Koontz), but a flashback shows that his mother doted on him and called him her “little candy boy” when he was a child. The nickname stuck but grew shorter, so now he’s Candy.
I like this because the origin of the nickname is realistic. And “Candy” is not in and of itself an intended-to-frighten “Look at me, I’m eeeeevil!” moniker – it’s light-hearted and cute, until you read about the sadistic crimes Candy commits. Then his personality brings depth and weight to the nickname, not the other way around. Unfortunately, newer Koontz villains like Vladimir Laputa don’t have that much subtlety and contrast.
Many characters in fantasies have fairly complex names - elves in Tolkien’s novels, for instance - so I like to see these contrasted with shorter, crisper names that may also be easier to remember. One thing I’d avoid doing, though, is restricting such shorter names to an arbitrary number of letters unless there’s a good reason for this. In James Barclay’s Chronicles of the Raven novels, all Protectors have three-letter names, which makes them seem simplistic. And it wasn’t clear whether this was a custom of their society or an authorial decision.
Choosing the best names, according to the bible, is the first thing humans ever did. Maybe that’s why it’s still so much fun. :)