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. :)


Anonymous said...

J.K. Rowling has a knack for names as well, but then again she does combine real life names with more fantastic ones and the fantasy ones are also based on real languages or roots of real words (French, Latin, Old English, etc.)

I like to annotate names as I read articles on newspapers or magazines and used them later.

spamwarrior said...

I heard that Dickens was a good chooser of names as well.

Marian said...

Dickens's names often hinted at characters' personalities while never being overt or obvious.

My favorite books of his are A Christmas Carol and Hard Times (the latter because I had to study it in school :)) and I love the names in those. Scrooge and Gradgrind especially sound as rough and unpleasant as the characters can be.

Marian said...

Rowling is also good at showing family connections through names - everyone in the Black family seems to be named after stars or constellations, for instance. Whereas the more humble Weasleys get regular names like Charlie or Bill.

I did, however, find an article about names in fantasy that was critical of some of Rowling's choices. For instance, names like "Little Whinging" or "Delores Umbridge" were too obviously meant to be unpleasant.

But that's par for the course with books for children or young adults, IMO. Or even adults - there's a reason the Efrafan rabbits are called Woundwort and Vervain rather than Duckweed and Celery.

Anonymous said...

The names of the Weasley family are not as humble as they sound:

Mr. Weasley-Arthur

Seems innocent enough but there is a pattern:

Arthur,Charles and William are names of English kings (historical and literary). So are Frederick and George. Percival is of course a knight of the Round Table and Ronald is the English version of Roland, one of Charlemagne's Paladins. And Ginevra is Italian for....Guinevere.

Tara Maya said...

In one series I started a naming convention which later I came to question. By that point, however, it seemed too difficult to go through the book and re-name dozens of characters.

Marian said...

Hey ralfast,

That was interesting! I didn't realize that the Weasley names had such origins.

Though that lends even more significance to Rowling's choices. Considering the importance of the Weasley family in the books, I like that they got names that seem plain compared to "Bellatrix" or "Hermione" but are actually quite distinguished. :)

Marian said...

Hi Tara,

Same thing happened to me with a story - I'd decided that all the members of one race (bred for gladiatorial combat) would have short simple one- or two-syllable names.

Later on, though, I decided those names would all be musical or poetic terms. I had to rewrite the entire story for a different reason, though, so I decided to change the names along with everything else.