Naming Names Part II
J.V. Jones
Apr 10th : 2008

Fantasy names can be tricky. A writer makes up a world, including all the attending details of history, geography, culture, religion, economics and so on, and designs a nomenclature (naming scheme) around it. As the world has been created from scratch, many writers believe that their names should be original too. Hence the proliferation of A'hgnks, Dariyonas, Eliialls and Quorns. It's hard to make up names from scratch: try it. You'll end up with some very silly names that you can pronounce (because you made them up) but when typed on a piece of paper and handed to a stranger will only cause him to shake his head and say, "Corn?" when you really meant Kworn but spelled it "Quorn" because dammit it looks better, more like a proper fantasy name.
This approach doesn't work for me. I don't want readers wondering how to pronounce a character's name: it's an unnecessary hurdle, inhibiting a reader's involvement with the story. I want readers to scan a name, understand how to pronounce it, remember it, and gain a few bytes of information relevant to that character's personality. Names like A'hgnks and Quorns fail miserably here. If a reader is unsure how to pronounce a word he'll skip over it in his mind, and he'll keep skipping over it until he reaches the final page. When he should be reading, "Kworn was lonely after the wedding" he is in fact reading, "[missing data] was lonely after the wedding." This is a grave error for a writer to make. It distances the reader from the character and therefore the story, working directly against your purpose as a writer which should be to immerse the reader in your world.

Second. A'hgnks and Quorns are hard to remember. They're new to the reader, include unfamiliar groupings of vowels and consonants, and don't look like words we use on a daily basis. For a reader to remember them he must make a special effort, either take a mental snapshot of the new word so that when he encounters another unknown word he can compare its profile to the original. Or he has to perform a little pairing program: search his mind for a similar word and then store the new word close by. Thus A'hgnk might be linked to "ankh" or "high jinx" or the pirate cry, "Aaargh!"

Which brings us to the third point. When you give a character an unpronounceable and unfamiliar name you lose control of the information associated with that name. Quorn might sound grand to you, king-like almost, but if the reader is pronouncing it "Corn" then he and you are no longer on the same page. Corn is plain and straight and drinks beer, whereas Quorn (when pronounced correctly by the writer) is regal and tricky and likes wine. Worse even than misinformation is lack of information. If a reader is skipping over a name in your story then he's not gaining information from it. Valuable data is missing. You might have an elaborate naming scheme, whereby all letters after the third apostrophe donate clan lineage, the first vowel designates sex and the fourth names the village of birth, but if a reader is skipping a name he's not appreciating any of this. And as a writer you've missed an opportunity to set that character in the reader's mind.

So if you are writing SF or fantasy, how do you name characters? Certainly you want the culture of your world to be reflected in its names, but the need for otherworldliness should be balanced by practicality. If you're writing in English, anglicize your names. Thus the Celtic Bairrfhionn becomes Berrin, the Arabic Ruqayyah becomes Kaya, and (as in my fifth book Cavern of Black Ice) the Inuit Sadluiyok becomes Sadaluk. If we do this we manage to retain some of the richness and culture of the country of origin while creating a pronounceable word.

Another trick is to use existing words as names. In Fortress of Grey Ice I introduce a character named Stillborn. It's a word we all know, has a small but emotionally-charged packet of information attached to it, and now that you've seen it in this context: doesn't it look like a name? Collect words. Animal names, bird names, fish names, emotions, nouns, legumes. In my Sword of Shadows series, I have a character who appears just once, in the prologue to Fortress. He has a small part but it's an important one and I needed to convey character without wasting words. A few weeks earlier I'd been watching the Tonight Show when Jay Leno introduced the professional boxer known as Butterbean. Butterbean looks just like his name: plump, hairless, pale. And he's a goodwilled softie too, which is also conveyed in his name, most specifically the "butter" part. My character however is not a goodwilled softie, though he is plump, hairless and pale. My character is mean and has a giant chip on his shoulder. My character's name is Bitterbean.

Modifying existing words is a an excellent strategy for SF and fantasy writers. It's a way to produce new words that have all the familiar markers of existing words. Start collecting words, jot them down and refer to them when you're naming characters. For as long as I can remember I've collected words. Way back in the eighties, I used to play a game on the Commodore 64 where the entire purpose--as I remember it--was to reach the obelisk. "That's a good word," my teenage self thought, filing it away for future use, even though Teenage Self never imagined she would become a writer. Over a decade later I used that word to name a character in my first book, The Baker's Boy. Obelisk became Tavalisk and a sneaky archbishop was born.

Once you get into the habit of looking at everyday words as names, you see potential everywhere. Modified or unmodified, they're familiar and bring information to readers. Perhaps Corn, plain and simple, wouldn't be such a bad name after all. And then there's Buckwheat and Hayseed, Chickenfeed and Chickpea. Oatmeal might become Goatmeal, and Fodder...well Fodder's just good to go.

If you choose carefully, you can still add the richness of languages other than English to your names. Obelisk is Greek in origin, but as it's in English use we know how to pronounce it. If I modified the Greek word for tower, Ypsonomai, to Kipsonomai, most of us would still be unsure how to pronounce the new word and we'd do a skipover. However, if we take the Arabic word Saffron, which is in everyday English use, and modify it to make Saffril, then we not only get a pretty girl's name with a golden preciousness to it, but we also get a name that reaches back to a different culture.

So get a notebook and start filling it with words you like. Keep your eyes and ears open. Watch the Tonight Show and the Discovery Channel. Read. Flip open a dictionary at random and make a name from the fifth word down. Get into the habit of looking at everyday words as potential names. Shorten, anglicize and simplify names from languages other than English. Use non-English words in common use as a starting point for unusual and culturally-rich names. Avoid apostrophes. Utilize the meaning of common words to describe character: Pip, Sparrow, Stillborn, Bear, Corn. Most of all make sure you choose words that are pronounceable. [missing data] does not make for a good name.