On Naming Fantasy Characters
One of the hardest aspects of writing a fantasy story, I find, is conjuring a bunch of made-up names that don’t sound like I spilled alphabet soup on a crossword puzzle. It’s important to get names right, of course. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has flung away a potential read in disgust because the blurb said something about a protagonist called ‘Nynmn’dryhl of the Xyl’turym’. Can I buy a vowel, please? I’m also guessing this is one reason why so few fantasy worlds include any equivalent of telephones, as everyone would be forever spelling their names over them.
That said, personal appreciation of fantasy names is about as subjective as it gets. One person’s ‘Nynmn’dryhl’ may be another’s ‘Bilbo Baggins’. It would be arrogant for me to sit here (I really must get a standing desk so I can sound more authoritative when I type) and tell you what does or does not make a good fantasy name, especially when I myself have created names I know for a fact that others find cringe-worthy. One of my good friends, for instance, never lets me forgot that I named a place ‘Whisperwood’. ‘Whisperwood,’ he will say, years later, out of the blue, shaking his head in dismay.
Thus instead I’ll merely tell you about general approaches I find to be useful. One such, which I imagine is a common starting point for many authors, is to simply diddle around with various syllables, rearranging them in different ways until striking upon a pleasing combination. I do not own the patent for this, and mind altering drugs are optional. Losara, Olakanzar, Lalenda, and Elessa are all the results of such a ‘process’, as we shall kindly call it.
Another method is to be derivative in some way. For example, in Prophecy’s Ruin, Book One of the Broken Well trilogy, there is a nasty little talking bird who revels in lies and manipulation, who is very much in the business of talking people into doing things they will ultimately regret. His name is Iassia, which is inspired by the Shakespearean villain, Iago, a classic character whose main source of influence is his silver tongue. Such derivation need not be based on another character, but may take instead as its basis a descriptive word which lends a feeling to a character’s persona. The Dark Lord Malacandros (the evil boss you have to avoid getting fireballed-to-death by in my comedic gamebook, Butler to the Dark Lord) is taken from ‘malicious’, ‘malevolent’, and possibly even ‘Malcolm’ (see next point).
Another common approach is to take a real-world name and simply change a letter or two. Eddard Stark, anyone? I find this method especially useful when it comes to naming small-time characters, but it means I wind up with a lot of farmers called things like Borry. Incidentally, I find that small-time characters are amongst the most difficult to name. The reason is, it still takes time to come up with a good name for them, and once I do, I don’t want to waste it on some two-line nobody. Thus I am forever transplanting good names from unimportant characters to mains, leaving all guards-who-are-about-to-be-killed with necessarily dubious monikers that I have no fear of becoming attached to.
On the subject of real-world names, one thing I always find jarring in fantasy is when a real name gets mixed in with the made-up ones. Amongst the Nynmn’dryhls and Dakurs, why, here’s Mary everyone. ‘Let me introduce you to Mary, Nynmn’dryhl!’ Whether this incongruity reeks of laziness, or the author just liked the name Mary a lot, I’m never really sure … but I just don’t buy that Zeddicus Zul Zorander has a grandson called Dick.
By the way, something rarely seen in fantasy is two characters sharing the same name. In the real world, of course, we have plenty of Johns and Susans. If you can believe it, we even have plenty of Strykers and Braylees. In fantasy, however, you just don’t get such repetition.
‘I am Zarrakvah, Lord of Darkness.’
‘Oh! Hello there, my lord. I’m called Zarrakvah too, actually – Zarrakvah, shearer of sheep.’
‘Ah. Well, that tends to undermine my mystique a little, does it not?’
‘Aye, sorry lord. I was named after my uncle Zarrakvah, actually.’
You never get this scene in fantasy, maybe at the equivalent of a cocktail party:
‘Greetings, fond maiden.’
‘Oh, greetings to you … er … sorry, was it Teremond?’
‘Actually, it’s Deridas.’
‘Ah, forgive me, that was going to be my next guess.’
Parents of fantasy book characters are like the worst of try-hard celebrities, forever bestowing their spawn with unique and original names to signify their amazing individuality. Do they themselves go through the methods I described above? Do two high elves sit by the cradle of their infant daughter, recklessly ramming letters together in ways their makers never intended, until all that’s left to decide is where to put the arbitrary apostrophe? ‘Well,’ they gush later to their friends, ‘we just thought, you know, she looks like a Gwyn’talamodrin!’
I can appreciate why this one-off naming system exists in fantasy. It would be confusing, of course, to have two Gwyn’talamodrins running about in any given world, especially if they both want to set up gmail addresses. Gwyntalamodrin2@gmail.com would be so annoying!
I actually decided to buck this trend in some of my later books (although no one in particular was challenging me to), and am proud to say that in in my Strange Threads duology, there are not one, not two, but three characters who share the same name. Which is Hanry, by the way. So good on me, eh?
At least, when all is said and done, no matter what names you concoct for your fantasy story, be assured that no given reader will ever pronounce them the way you intended. The way someone reads a fantasy name the first time is how they’ll remember it for life, even if they’ve subconsciously added extra letters themselves, gleefully ignoring all laws of phonetic pronunciation. It’s kind of an accidental safety mechanism for the author, as readers superimpose their own preferences over the utter nonsense you have dished up to them, to make it more personally palatable, yet you still get the credit.
Finally, how do you know that you personally approve of a name you have created? Easy – it’s when you finally add it to your spell checker’s dictionary as a real word. This way your word processor is not constantly underlining it red, as if to ask, ‘Are you sure about this? Really? Are you sure?’
I have not yet done this with Nynmn’dryhl.