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Tuesday, January 23, 2007


James with a Y

... or: made-up character names that don't make sense.

This is a pet peeve of mine, and possibly an unfair one; when I was in my early teens I read a few fantasy novels that had mellifluous and imaginary character names, and, like any thirteen-year-old, I thought, 'Oh. Pretty names.' So I'd be lying if I said I didn't understand the appeal.

But now I'm pushing thirty, I don't think the prettiness appeal is enough. Authors are free to invent names if they wish, but it's far too easy to be lazy about it. Just because you're writing for thirteen-year-olds doesn't mean you're allowed to short-change them on the logic. And the thing is, with a little bit of thought, well-chosen character names can add a huge amount to a story. With that in mind, here are some things to think about:

If you're setting your story in an imaginary world, or writing about an imaginary people, there are a number of questions you need to ask yourself when picking names. First question: What language do they speak in this world?

There are two options. First, you can decide that they're speaking a made-up language that you, in your role as chronicler, are helpfully translating. In which case, it's time to put on an iron thinking cap and tighten the screws, because you need to be rigorous about this. What are the commonest sounds in this language? What's the accent? What names would be easy to pronounce, and what would be impossible? You will need to come up with a set of names that sound as if they come out of the same language group, and also as if it's a real language.

Michel Faber in Under the Skin, for example, (which, I should point out in the interests of accuracy, is not a fantasy book for teenagers, but does have made-up words) has characters who clearly speak a different language from English as their mother tongue. So our heroine is called Isserley; another character is called Amliss Vess. She eats mussanta paste; her career is hunting vodsels. You see how this works? This is a language with a lot of S sounds and few if any dipthongs. It's perfectly consistent, and as a result, adds texture to the story. This is because Faber evidently thought it out carefully rather than just flinging together syllables he found appealing.

Alternatively, you can decide, 'They're speaking English, and I don't care if that's unlikely because it's my world and I say so.' Which is entirely justified. But if that's the case, why do they need exotic-sounding names? You don't meet people called Gretchen in Japan, because for a tongue used to Japanese syllables it's difficult to say, and you don't meet people in England called Alikaya or Surilami (or at least, not ethnically English people), because it's just not that kind of language. It's too consonanty, and made-up names are often crammed with mellifluous vowel sounds and soft consonants like L, S and N. As a language, English is actually pretty sticky. It doesn't lend itself to mellifluous. You could try making up English-sounding names like Hobkin and Petal, if you don't mind sounding like Tolkein in a cutesy mood, but really - if they're speaking English, what's wrong with English names?

English names, for one thing, are inconspicuous. No reader is going to slow down because the central character is called John, but if he talks like a Londoner and is called Alanndor, then that's pretty startling.

You also need to ask yourself how people get names. Unless you have an entirely different system going on, people get given names by their parents. Their parents will have to consider a number of things. Do we like this name? Will it get him beaten up when he's a child? (That one is high on the list of questions, so remember it if you're considering romantically flowery names, especially for male characters.) Is it a name that's flexible enough that it won't hinder him in later life? (Some names are appropriate to all situations, and some aren't. Sensible parents remember this when going through the naming book.) Can he shorten it to a nickname, and if so, is it a nickname that we like? (If you can't handle people calling your son Sorry or Sorehead, then Soren is out, even if you like the full version.) Wouldn't it be nice to name him for dear old Uncle Alfred who's been so kind to us all these years? (Not every name is chosen entirely on its own merits.) And - this one is important - do we have the same taste as everybody else?

Not everyone likes the same names. You know this: everybody has a relative or friend tucked away somewhere who forced you to smile with desperate courtesy and say, 'My, that's an ... unusual name. How nice. Yes, what a good choice of name that is.' - when what you really meant was 'How could you do this to an innocent baby, and why aren't I allowed to stop you?' Any world you create is likely to have people with names that aren't particularly nice, because everbody has different ideas about what 'nice' sounds like.

Made-up names that the author finds appealing, on the other hand, are all chosen by the same person. It ends up sounding like everybody in the story is related. Not just to each other (which'll put a right crimp on any romances you have in mind), but to every other fantasy book character who suffers from the same syndrome - because, due to fondness for lots of vowels and soft consonants, writers who pick random pretty names tend to end up with names that are very similar, no matter how different the worlds these people supposedly inhabit try to be. There's a kind of notional fantasy-land language from which these names come. (There's a challenge - anyone with more patience than me and too much time on your hands, go through lots of books and see if you can work out the characteristics of this language based on the names. I bet you can do it, because I'm sure I'm right about this. There might even be funding in it, if you can find the right university.) It doesn't feel like a real language, though. Even languages which are softer than English have more-pleasant and less-pleasant names. Welsh, for example, is a soft language on the ear, and a heavy influence on fantasy linguistics, but it still has names like Blodwyn and Wallace, which most English speakers find unromantic. (No offence to anyone with those names reading this; you may well be tender and passionate people who don't deserve the under-representation in romantic characters you're getting.) Names need to be linguistically consistent, but to have some variation within that. This does not mean giving all the best names to the heroes, because that will not convince anyone.

Also, let's talk surnames. How do they happen? In my Lexicon I've already talked about Gammon Shieldblade, the man with a surname created out of inconsistent pushbutton words Superglued together, but there's a more general point behind this. Surnames (or last names, for my American friends) have to come from somewhere. If you want to make them up, get a book of name origins and look at the kind of things that lead to surnames being created. They're very often to do with where people live - Whitfield, for example, very probably means that some ancestor way back lived near, or possibly owned, a chalk field, leading to being called Mr White Field, which then got shortened. A lot of other names come from careers, like Catchlove (from the old word for wolf, loup, I think, hence wolf hunter), or simpler ones like Thatcher or Cooper. Or they may come from personal features, like Little or Bald.

But these are seldom complimentary names. You have the odd one like Thoroughgood and Makepeace, but mostly, they're plain descriptions, or possibly insulting. They aren't created to praise someone's best points, they're created so that you can tell Robert the carpenter from Robert the sweep, and from Robert who doesn't do very much but has a distinctive limp, and from Robert the other carpenter whose most noticeable feature is that he's short and fat. Bear that in mind before you call a character something too flattering.

Hence, a warrior is probably not going to be called, say, Robert Keenblade. For one thing, he'd have to come from a long line of men who were also warriors, as that surname was something he was born with - overly appropriate surnames are a trap. But even supposing that his great-great-great-great-grandad was just like him, and that's where the name came from, why would he be called Keenblade? If people know his sword is sharp out of personal experience, he's more likely to be called Robert Horriblebastard. If he's always using his sword, he'll be Robert Brawler or Robert Hireling or Robert Knight, depending on who he's using it for. Most likely, his sword will be keen because he's always sharpening it, in which case he'll be called Robert Grindstone. You see what I'm getting at?

And finally, please, do not be tempted to take ordinary English names and fiddle with the spelling to make them look more exotic and/or archaic. Please. You don't need to have characters called Jain and Lusie and Peitre and Jaymes and Raichyl; Jane and Lucy and Peter and James and Rachel are clearly how they're pronounced, so fiddling with the spelling is just really, really pointless. Thou art not fooling anywight.

There's nothing wrong with inventing names if you wish, but there's a lot wrong with being lazy about it. You owe your readers some logic, and names are the bones of a story. Think about them a bit before you contort them.

"Robert Horriblebastard" LOL! Thanks Kit, I needed a laugh today!

Maybe there's room for a competition here for the most outlandish/inappropriate/amateurish character name, and then maybe another competition for the best? I can't think of too many bad ones, but one of the best has to be "Slartibartfast" from Hitch-Hikers. How on earth did Douglas Adams ever come up with THAT?!
He was a great comedian, Douglas. I hear he was really nice too - he was represented by the same agency as me, though he died around the time I joined, and everyone still speaks of him very fondly.

Let's stick to a competition for great names rather than slagging individual writers off over bad ones, as I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings . . . Though if anyone feels like making up a particularly weird-sounding character name, that's be fun. I always liked Swift's Gulliver addressing his 'little nurse' in Brobdingnag as 'Glumdalclitch'. It's nicely foreign-sounding and sticky.
Making up names is virtually impossible. I've tried. I made up Atella, only to discover it's a town in Italy. I made up Estroban (as a surname) only to find out relatively recently that it's a first name for a bit-part character in original Star Trek (who knows, that may be where I originally heard it!).

I even made up Calnius, due to the desperate shortage of decent first names for Roman males, and even that gets a few hits on Google. I like it, though, and it's quite close to the Latin for cup (calix) and as the character's a drinker, it fits him.

And I named my imaginary Roman town Suenna only the day after half-listening to a version of Foundation that mentioned, yes, the planet Siwenna.

Just call me cryptomnesia sqrl.
Are these all Roman names you're trying to make up? Or a variety of languages? Because if it's Roman, you could look at history books and see what kind of words get turned into names, and look at sentences in Latin and see and what letter combinations are common... Or possibly you already have.
The one time I really got peeved at a person's choice of names was with the recently-book-turned-movie Eragon.

C'mon. Aragorn? Eragon? Honestly, how much thought got put into that one? Or was it just a case of, "Hey, that's a cool name. Me stealie and hope I gets lots of Tolkien fansy-wansies!"


The other little bit of advice that made me snort milk through my tear ducts comes from the Fantasy Novelist's Exam (http://rinkworks.com/fnovel/)

Question #38: Do you see nothing wrong with having two characters from the same small isolated village being named "Tim Umber" and "Belthusalanthalus al'Grinsok"?

Also, I think you can take a lot of those same pointers you provided, Kit, and apply them to naming cities, landmarks, even cultures in general. It all ties together.

Foreign words can be a very good source for names in English stories. If you know someone who speaks a foreign language as their first language, they might be able to help with pleasant-sounding syllables, words, inflections, etc. This also has the added advantage (for me at least) of knocking self-doubt on the head. I mean, if it's a real word in a foreign language, it's got to sound more genuine than something I made up from scratch, hasn't it?
Atella was for a woman in a totally different story, but the other two are from my Romans. Estroban is for a man hailing from Spain, but Calnius is a Roman. I confess I don't usually work as hard at names as you suggest. I shall endeavour to amend my ways!

My father objects strongly to my Dacian character, whose name is Geraint. A Welsh name, I know, but it fits him. I'll probably have to change his nationality...
I'd like to get your opinion, y'all. It seems that some writers feel that they have to invent names, as if taking a name from the real world is a failure of imagination and characterisation on their part. Why is this? Any ideas?

(And Josh, you may have a point about Eragon/Aragorn, but let's play nice. Thanks for question 38 - a lovely succinct way of saying what it took me about sixteen hundred words to express...)
I don't think writers should think they HAVE to invent names, after all it's just a label, isn't it? For me the name usually comes last with any character: First up is goal/motivation to fit the plot/character's function in the story. Then he/she gets fleshed out with a's arrogance, b's sense of humour, c's troubled childhood (in the bio, natch) and any other bits and pieces that might make him/her interesting. Stir and leave to simmer, check later to make sure there are no cliches, give them physical attributes, maybe a habit or two, then start writing. Then it's "Oh rats, what's their name?"

Am I doing this all wrong?
I blame the critique groups.

(note: I always blame the critique groups)

I ran a Fantasy story thro' an online workshop in which the characters had sensible names (Marcus and Laura). Oh dear me, why Marcus and Laura? (Why NOT Marcus and Laura?)

What always amuses me is that Fantasy writers will give their characters outlandish names (because this isn't Earth), and lots of other things will be totally different from what we're used to, but, nonetheless, eventually along will come that Fantasy staple...a horse.

I don't think you're doing it wrong, chris. I often get bogged down at the naming stage, with every other aspect of the character ready to go. Conversely, sometimes I just get a name, and have to think up the character that goes with it. The first way is probably harder because so many names don't fit our preconceptions once the character's formed.

Making up names is probably part of "owning" the story. This here's mine, it's all mine...
I'd say the urge to "invent" names comes from a couple of factors..however, none that are binding, permanent, or forced onto a writer other than through their personal preference...

First, they may think their world will seem unoriginal or "too real" unless it has some weird new names in it to make readers say, "oh, we're not in Kansas anymore. We're in Kasanava, and Dorothy is now named Dorothoi."
Second, maybe it's just a fashion statement. A way of pinning a shiny new name on a character to make them stick in a reader's mind. A lot of writers get hammered with the advice that "their ideas must be unique, their stories must have that twist that sets it apart from all other stories." While this is true in many ways, maybe this gets applied too broadly, and those writers then think they can't even have normal names in their stories or else it will be seen as derivative.

Chris, you'd be surprised how many writers seem to make name-making very seriously and can't even start a story until they have the names figured out. Check out this ongoing forum discussion over on Jim Butcher's boards: http://www.jim-butcher.com/bb/index.php?topic=1529.0

And Kit, I'll try to play nice and keep my evil second cousin's half-brother twin on a short leash.
Thank you Buffysquirrel and josh. I had a look at that thread you posted above and was surprised that people do take these things so seriously. Before I started writing a few years ago I got some books on how to write books, and one in particular (Orson Scott Card's "How to write science fiction and fantasy") had some really sound advice on naming characters - how weird to be, when to know you're being ridiculous, etc. - and I pretty much thought that was enough for me.
I wonder how much of this is a kind of masochistic mind game? It's so difficult to get representation and get published that the devil on our shoulders says "No, the character's name has got to be better otherwise the reader/agent/publisher will never see the depth and work you put into it..."
Thanks for the link, Josh, very interesting. Something curious in that discussion, though - people keep talking about 'good names' and 'cool names', which makes me wonder if making names up leads to a tendency to use names that people like in themselves, without really thinking about how they add to the bigger picture. Stuff like messing around with random letters or sounds seems dreadfully likely to lead to improbable-sounding names to me.

Which makes me wonder whether made-up names aren't something of a marsh light. You see something glow, think, 'Ooh, shiny!', wander off after it . . . and the next thing you know, you're up to your waist in mess. You need a logical underpinning to invented names if they're going to work.

But picking names is never easy. Several of my major characters in Bareback had surnames that came from an evening spent huddled over the telephone directory. But names don't have to be unusual to require a lot of thought. I spent an entire evening debating what to call the heroine's love interest, before finally settling on (gasp) 'Paul'. Even the most common names have certain kinds of resonances to them.

I wouldn't worry too much about the devil on your shoulder, Chris. Everyone's got one, and they're all extremely inventive when it comes to freaking us out.

Here's something that might amuse you: once I wrote an entire scene between a young woman and her potential love interest that lasted about a thousand words. I really didn't spot until someone pointed it out that I'd called them 'Jamie' and 'James'.
This post has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hi Chris,

I read your latest post with great pleasure and deleted it with great regret, because it had a big plot spoiler in it. Sorry. Do keep posting, though.
How about the hot, dark drink in a fantasy world that everyone discusses with great relish and must consume before starting the day? Usually named khavee or some such. Just call it what it is.

BTW, I've been trying unsuccessfully to add the rss feed for this blog to my reader. Any help?
Oh, yes, klah I think it is in the Pern novels. Silly me, it took me forever to work out it was coffee, perhaps because I don't drink the stuff.

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, call it a fedrellio.
Oh, ah, yes... Sorry about that. Really. I've got lots of excuses for doing dumb things (I've had lots of practice). But I still can't get used to the fact that these threads feel like a private conversation, and keep forgetting that they're in a public place. Won't happen again (I'm only a part-time wally, honest).
No one's a wally. I enjoyed your comment. I'm just hijacking an affable conversation to advertise myself like a big profiteer. (I'm moving house soon and need a new fridge, you see...) :-)
Don't you believe it! Just ask my wife! Then again, on second thoughts maybe don't... :-)

But seriously, it really is so easy to forget that just anyone can log on and read these posts... Tych, this new technology. I remember the good old days when we had CDs on "Tomorrow's World" and me and my school mates wondered if we'd be able to break the laser out of the player unit, plug it straight into the power socket, and use it like Han Solo's blaster. I've got an old school mate who's still blind in one eye from trying that...

I going off thread now, aren't I?
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