September 6, 2011

Character Names in Fantasy

        The names of fictional characters are significant in all genres, and the best ones always help the reader form an impression of the character while still seeming right and natural.  Names in fantasy, however, have an additional role.  Because fantasy books have to immerse readers in entirely new universes, the names of fantasy characters have to tell the reader not only about the characters, but about their entire world.  This is a heavy responsibility and leads to a lot of people having a bit of a love-hate relationship with fantasy names.  Here are some of the issues…
        Normal vs Strange - Unless the story is set on Earth, it doesn't really make sense that the characters would have normal Earth names (which in most fantasy written in English really means traditional European Earth names.)  A wise old dwarf in some magical faraway land should not be called Jim.  It would throw me out of the story.  (I get the impression that Tolkien switched horses midstream on this one by claiming that Sam was really short for Samwise and Freddie's real name was Fredegar, and so on.)  So unless they're set on Earth, fantasy names should be strange in order to give the reader clues about the strange world they're in.  But…
        Unfamiliar vs Confusing - We have no difficulty remembering long cast lists of characters with names that we recognize, but for some reason strange names, until they become familiar, just don't stick as well.  Some fantasy writers try to get around this by using "normal" names with some sort of alternate spelling or twiddly ending.  Personally, as a reader I tend not to like this.  (Robert Jordan was particularly irritating in this respect.)  The best names manage to be new and interesting, but enough unlike each other so as not to be too confusing.  There shouldn't be dozens of names starting with the same letter or having the same shape.  They should all be distinctly different.  But…
        Variety vs Ease - There are an infinite number of possible sound combinations, but only a very narrow selection of them that native speakers of English can handle.  Readers don't like names that are too long or too hard to pronounce.  But at the same time, when a book involves characters who are supposed to represent multiple cultures, yet their names all sound like the same language, the reader is getting mixed messages about the world.  How different are the cultures really if they all speak the same language and all name their children from the same pool of possibilities?  I admit that I may have an abnormal interest in those details.  I majored in linguistics in college and have an enduring fascination with the broad range of possibilities within human languages.  Different languages have different sets of vowels and consonants and different patterns of syllables, and of course different cultures have different naming conventions.  In my Otherworld Series I've given each different culture a different set of phonetic rules for name-building, so that from a character's name you can tell where they come from.  I think this is really cool - but the inevitable side effect is that I've been guilty of some names that are too long and/or too hard to pronounce.  (One of the main characters of the third book Return to Tchrkkusk is Chlukash.  The words and names of her people, the Tchrkkym, aren't really unpronounceable if you just remember that R and Y can be vowels, which is perfectly reasonable in several human languages, but just not English.  Wouldn't it be a little strange if every language in the Otherworld built its words by the phonetic rules of English?  And yet, of course, my readers are all readers of English.)  The stranger the names are, the harder they are for readers to remember.  And if readers can't remember which characters are which, they aren't going to enjoy the story as much.
        Variety vs Cues - The rules of English words and names play out in another way, too.  To speakers of English certain sounds have certain connotations.  Some names sound rough, some sound sneaky, some sound light, some sound masculine, some sound feminine…  Of course these sound associations are not universal and there's no reason that other languages of other peoples in other universes would share them.  I get a little annoyed when too many female fantasy names end in -a or -i.  (I even played with this idea a little in the fourth Otherworld book, Vision Revealed.  The [female] hero is named Svarnil, but when she travels to Minaria, the people there keep trying to call her Svarnili, because otherwise it doesn't sound to them like a girl's name.)  But however arbitrary such conventions are in reality, this is fantasy we're talking about.  The point of making up names is to give the reader an experience of immersion in another time and place.  Therefore too much "realism" is not helpful, but whatever linguistic cues the writer can give will add to the depth of the reader's experience.  But then, this all has to be balanced back again, recognizable vs exotic
        All language is a balancing act between information and ease, and you can really see this principle at work in fantasy names.  The speaker (or writer) wants to impart as much information as possible, but the hearer (or reader) doesn't want to have to work too hard to interpret all that information.  If the writer tries to put in too much information, the reader gets bogged down.  On the other hand, the writer wants to keep things efficient and simple, while the reader wants to be told the whole story.  If the writer oversimplifies, the reader isn't satisfied.  Names are so much more than just a tag or serial number.  They evoke entire worlds.  And that's the fun and frustration of fantasy names.  Which fantasy names do you really love - or really hate?

[Picture: detail from Little Nut Tree (with name tags added), rubber block print by AEGN, 2005.]

3 comments:

  1. I am definitely NOT a linguist, and I am one of those readers who has trouble with exotic and "different" names. I really appreciate hearing about the theory and practice of creating fantasy names. Somehow knowing this makes it a bit easier to navigate among the various vowel and consonant combos, and also to notice authors who do not take as much care in their names. Thanks!

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  2. Great post -- very interesting! I used to make up fantasy names for myself when I was little, based on the book I was reading, and have become rather sensitive to fantasy names myself. My least favorite thing is when authors use other authors' naming systems rather than create their own, for example if everyone sounds like they've been lifted out of Rohan (or, in a different vein, like Gurgi in the Chronicles of Prydain, whose name is so close to being Gollum that it was silly to try and make it different at all.) Le Guin has some of my favorites (particularly in Earthsea); she's good at making her place names and character names work together to create a sense of language.
    I'm curious what you think of the names in the Song of Ice and Fire series? Martin comes uses a lot of alternate spellings and "twiddly endings," but I find the names working quite well for me, and I am actually having a surprisingly easy time remembering everyone considering the plethora of characters.

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  3. Darla, I agree that LeGuin does good character and place names, and I agree that Alexander can seem a bit too much like Lord of the Rings For Kids.
    I also made up fantasy names for myself all the time when I was little! I also loved making up all kinds of names for the other characters in whatever scenarios I was imagining. In short, as you can tell, I just love names!
    As for Martin, I admit I've decided not even to start those -- it sounds like way too much Really Bad Stuff happening to characters you care about, and I'm a wimp about that! But I think names that sound a lot (but not quite) like historical European names are probably entirely appropriate for a book with a setting that's a lot (but not quite) like a historical European setting.

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