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Fantasy names

In secondary-world fantasies (i.e., not recognizable alternative Earth), names are such a conundrum. It ties into the larger conundrum of culture creation, but I think the issue is especially acute with names. You can invent a culture that contains elements from numerous Earth cultures. For example, you might have a raiding seafaring people with a martial ethos and religious structure like the Vikings, but based in a tropical climate, so with material goods, food, etc., that are more like Pacific islanders. But you further imagine that rather than coming from small island chains, these people have a home base that's a big city on a continent. And so on. But now you go to give your warriors names. Your choices are going to cue people in to particular Earth cultures.

Those of you who write secondary fantasy, how do you deal with this? Do you use names that come straight-up from this or that language (and associated culture)? In C.J. Brightly's novel The King's Sword, for instance, she used unaltered Japanese names for some of her warriors, because, as she told me, "I wanted to bring a bit of Japanese flavor in through the language unique to soldiers, since so much of the rest of the setting was more European in feel."

Other writers, what choices do you make? Do you modify them in some way--for example, changing the spelling, or shifting the vowels or something?

Readers of secondary fantasy, how do you feel about names in fantasy?


( 73 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 11th, 2016 02:27 pm (UTC)
I guess, as a reader, what I want is for names to be used mindfully. I don't mind authors "bringing some Japanese flavor into a mostly European feeling setting" if their intention is to make use of that flavor somehow. Otherwise, it just confuses me. ("Wait, are they Japanese in attitude as well as name? Or is the name just weirdly out of place/context?")

I tend to make conlangs for my secondary words, or if not, I try to make sure the naming customs help the reader bring the assumptions I want them to bring into the work. Whether it's visual ("These people are mountainous and look Russian, so let's give them Russian names") or cultural/political ("these people have their own little thing going, separate and alien from everything around them, so let's give them Basque names").

Otherwise, it's a lost opportunity, I imagine.
Jul. 11th, 2016 02:37 pm (UTC)
So do you use actual Russian names, and Basque names? (Also, I feel stupid here, but what does "conlangs" mean. I know I can google....)

Even within a language, there are names and names. I think writers generally go for names that are old or that have a historical resonance.
(no subject) - haikujaguar - Jul. 11th, 2016 02:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Jul. 11th, 2016 02:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - haikujaguar - Jul. 11th, 2016 03:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Jul. 11th, 2016 03:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pdlloyd - Jul. 11th, 2016 06:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jul. 11th, 2016 02:39 pm (UTC)
I try to be mindful when naming. I want to evoke but not appropriate, so I look at how consonant/vowel combinations are set up, how often certain consonant combinations are used in the beginning, middle, and end of names in a particular culture, and how words with meaning are grouped to become names.
Jul. 11th, 2016 02:48 pm (UTC)
This is fascinating--could you share an example?
(no subject) - joycemocha - Jul. 11th, 2016 11:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 11th, 2016 03:26 pm (UTC)
Francesca and I had a really good conversation about this and I think, due to time constraints and the fact that we understood each other, that sentence got taken out of context. It looks really weird out on its own like that!

The larger conversation was something a bit like this, slightly modified here:

I am not a linguist, and I don’t speak anything other than English. I took 4 years of Latin in high school and at one point I was marginally competent in Spanish, but… well, that was a while ago! As a non-linguist, monolingual American, I wanted sounds that “fit” my idea of the culture. So the names and words that were Kumar (the soldiers’ language) or derived from Kumar were drawn from Japanese and Basque. It’s probably a horrifying combination to a linguist, but it made sense to my ear and some of the meanings were particularly convenient. I hoped that if I mixed them in fairly equal proportions it would sound semi-natural, rather than like I’d meant to use just one or the other and simply gotten confused. I also hoped blending them would avoid looking like I was transparently stealing/coopting/using an existing culture (possibly either well or badly) when I meant for it to be familiar and evocative but not exactly the same as any real earth culture.

The Erdemen military reminded me of modern American military culture (dedicated, skilled, intelligent, professional, organized, hierarchical… essentially a lot of good people who are sometimes stuck in a bureaucracy, although that’s not what the story is about), but the fighting style was meant to be very reminiscent of karate. I wanted to bring a bit of Japanese flavor in through the language unique to soldiers, since so much of the rest of the setting was more European in feel. I’ve practiced karate for over twenty years, but that’s the extent of my Japanese connection. I’m pretty sure I also made up a few words that seemed to fit the right general sounds (I know I did this in later books, but I don’t remember about TKS specifically). So it's actually a very spare conlang (because I wasn't confident developing it much) rather than just Japanese.

I had no idea that “Common” was such a cliche in fantasy, especially in gaming, but also in bad fantasy fiction. I haven’t read a lot of the old, bad ripoffs of Tolkien, so I didn’t know to avoid that name in particular. Now I wish I had, but it’s a bit late to change it. At least not everyone speaks Common… it’s a “west of the mountains” language. Common was (transparently and intentionally) drawn from English, with the occasional made-up word that seemed to sound like it fit. The language of the soldiers also serves to separate them (at least a little bit) from civilians culturally and linguistically.

It's totally possible I did what I intended to do poorly, but I did not intend to just yoink random bits of language out of context for no reason. Appropriation is not cool.

Edited at 2016-07-11 03:27 pm (UTC)
Jul. 11th, 2016 03:28 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for joining in! It's a really absorbing topic, and I think anyone who writes or reads secondary-world fantasy thinks about it. I really appreciate your sharing!
(no subject) - CJBrightley - Jul. 11th, 2016 03:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jul. 11th, 2016 03:56 pm (UTC)
The problem with some conlangs is that all the names sound alike. (Usually ending with 'a' or 'i' for females and 'o' or 'u' for males.And sprinklings of apostrophes that make no linguistic sense don't help.)

The cultural appropriation finger-shake has certainly come out for wholesale borrowings from other languages, usually by white people for minority cultures or Asian (not a minority by a long chalk!).

I think the world building is more interesting if the reader can perceive cultural patterns and or historical shifts in the naming. But to build those means taking the time to look at root words, how they change and accrete suffixes and prefixes, and sometimes a writer just wants to get the story told.
Jul. 11th, 2016 04:20 pm (UTC)
Apostrophes don't actually bother me all that much; they're just an indication of another sound possibility (a glottal stop in some cases, a change in the sound that comes before it in other cases--and probably more things than that, but those are the two I know). I think some writers do just throw them in there without actually intending them to mean anything ("Hey, this looks like Klingon, right? Okay then!"), but that's like the thing about steampunk pictures featuring meaningless gears--it's a problem with the writer/artist, not the gears or the apostrophes themselves. I fear nowadays some people may avoid apostrophes superstitiously, the way people avoid adverbs superstitiously. There's nothing wrong with them if they're used judiciously.

I agree that beginning fantasy writers--at least in this country--probably have a tendency to make up names based on romance-language conventions, because even though English has a good dash of Germanic influence, for names, we're pretty influenced by romance languages. That's where having familiarity with other languages, or at least noticing what names are like other languages, really helps.

What you say about names changing over time is really pointful too. One thing you do in your books that I like is have names that are popular--so you get lots of people (relatively speaking) named that. That's a real thing, so common in every culture and yet you rarely see it in stories.
(no subject) - haikujaguar - Jul. 11th, 2016 05:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jul. 11th, 2016 04:10 pm (UTC)
Names are enormously important, to the extent that a misnamed (IMO, obviously!) main character can throw me right out of sympathy with a story, or at least make it very hard work to overcome. I think that secondary-world characters should preferably not have names too reminiscent of this world, and not even name-elements that sound too plainly like this world.

On the other hand, this language we have (whichever we're writing in, and for me, English, obv) has useful resonances to draw on, to hint at character or culture, and it would be wilful waste to ignore them. Primarily, for me, if I were writing in my own made-up world (which I never have) that would mean using the sounds of the names. For example, once I wrote about a group of Narnian Elephants - their names included Grundurran, Rummorornah and Mnaerundundra - names that could be rumbled or breathed or trumpeted, suitable for Elephants.

I think it's a bit hack to use hyper-obvious sense-associations (Voldemort!) and hackest of all to use outright words to duck the work of writing character, though I can't think of an example right now. Though I like it when authors do it in alliance with the reader, so to speak, making it cheerfully overt that this is a story, and it's all made up! (I'm thinking of writers like Trollope, who gave us the overburdened parental Quiverfuls! The shonky election agent Nearthewinde!)
Jul. 11th, 2016 04:27 pm (UTC)
When you say a misnamed character, what do you mean? I'm imagining Clodfoot Shambleshanks for someone who's supposed to be ethereal and agile, or someone named Donald who's the son of Emperor Tian-an, but what kind of wrongness are you thinking of?

The problem I see is with creating names that have no resonances at all is that resonances creep in based on your sense of sounds. For instance, k sounds are very hard/harsh to me, but they're very common in a lot of Native American languages (and in Tetun!) where I can't believe they have that association (though I also don't know, so...)

I love your elephant names! They do sound very elephantine!
(no subject) - heliopausa - Jul. 12th, 2016 01:05 am (UTC) - Expand
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Jul. 11th, 2016 04:42 pm (UTC)
I try to make up names unique to the culture I'm creating and not beholden to our current cultural naming conventions.

I have noticed, though, that there are people who try to tie specific names back to specific cultural regions/peoples anyway.

I've noticed this as well with terms that are created solely for novels. People look to see if there's anything in our real world that it could tie to.

And often look for reasons to take offense.

So, this makes the creation of names and otherworldly language stressful for me.
Jul. 11th, 2016 04:51 pm (UTC)
There's nothing you can do about people who are looking to find problems, and if you try to please everyone you'll end up silent, because it's impossible. Truly! People have opposite things they want or find annoying/offensive. So you just try your level-headed best, I'd say.

Personally, I love your names, at least the ones I've been exposed to so far.
Jul. 11th, 2016 06:11 pm (UTC)
I am a writer, but at this point all of my professional writing is technical documentation, so I can't offer a lot of market-tested advice. When I do write fantasy stories, my primary goal for fantastical names tends to be euphony. (I did start poking at a conlang for one story I was working on, where the rules started building on themselves, but the story shifted to the back burner when some other things came up, so it hasn't see much work in a while.) I do think having some rules for how a language "sounds" is probably a good idea—even if you don't have a language-language specifically written out, it doesn't necessarily work to have one character in your story named Kevin and another person from the same culture called Ugubalawagro-Vustenstein with no reasonable explanation of why the names are so vastly different. (Maybe Kevin was named for someone who appeared from another land and the name has become an honored heirloom. Maybe Ugubalawagro is royalty and has to have a royal name with ancestral meaning. So, you can give reasons for differences, but make them meaningful!)

My biggest issue with some fantasy names I've come across, really, is "don't make me guess how to pronounce them." If you're basing the names on a real-world language system, that's fine. But if your names are a completely made up Romanization where, for example, C (because it always sounds alone like K or S) is used as a stand-in for the ch sound in loch and Bach...well, that's fine, but let me know. I hate having to guess what a name sounds like. If it's an unfamiliar name with an "ough" in it, I have no idea whether to sound it like cough, tough, though, through, or (heaven forbid!) hiccough. Instead of naming someone "Zough," be more clear about it (Zoff, Zuff, Zoh, Zew, or Zup), or just find a way of conveying through the story how it's said ("Years of having it pointed out to Zough that his name rhymed with 'pew' had left a mark on his fragile self-image.") But, in general, if you're going to put a fantasy name into the Latin alphabet anyway, be consistent and obvious about it. It may "look" fantasy to, say, start using J as a vowel pronounced "yee" and have a character named Mjm, but I'm going to stumble over that name every time unless I know what to do with that J. ("Muhjuhm?") Either let me know what to do with that J, or just be phonetic about it—otherwise you risk pulling me out of story immersion every time I can't pronounce a name.

Jul. 11th, 2016 08:27 pm (UTC)
It's so funny you used the name "Kevin" because that was the same name that popped into my head for a comment on how even names from a given language (in this case English) can sound more or less in tune with your story. Somehow "Kevin" just sounds too real-world, twenty-first-century to my ear right now. But that's where creative spelling comes in. "Kehvin" or something.

Even when names seem to have an obvious pronunciation, it's amazing how much variation you'll find among readers. In the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, the main character is Taran. I pronounced the first a as American English short a (as in "sat") and the second one like the schwa (the indistinct vowel sound that's sort of "eh" or "uh"), and I put the emphasis on the first syllable: TA-run. But a number of friends of mine pronounced it Tah-RHAN, with emphasis on the second syllable and the second a sounding like ahh.
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Jul. 11th, 2016 07:13 pm (UTC)
I love names and naming, and spend far too much time on it. Since most of my recent (for rather extended meanings of recent) writing has been set either in this world or in one that's only one step over, I haven't faced creating entirely new names for people from entirely new cultures for a very long time. But, so much of what I've read here resonates with me.

When I'm selecting names for main characters in a this-world setting, I try to find a name with a meaning that has some kind of connection to the character, but I also try not to stretch that so far that I wind up with names that don't fit the setting or time, either. So, if I were writing something in 16th century England, or in the early colonies, I might name a girl Tabitha because she is as quick or graceful as a gazelle, but unless I want to evoke 60s sitcom witches, I probably wouldn't use that name in a contemporary story. In today's world she might be Grace, if she is graceful, or clumsy. But, if she's quick or a fast runner, it would be hard to find a feminine name that would work in contemporary America, unless I give her an immigrant background. But, a guy could be Hector. Or, maybe either could have the nickname Mercury, or the girl could be Mercedes, which evokes the car, but also has meanings that could flavor her personality, since it's based on the plural of mercy, but also has Latin associations with "wages, reward" and "favour, pity" (Behind the Name).

Hmm, all this thinking about names has reminded me of a playful secondary world setting in which I tried to be very inventive with names. Because I was going for humor, many of the names are quite odd: Treselon, Conihop, Ongit, Bafin, Rogny, Trinpeldemar, and Yelmar, etc. I don't remember now if I had an overall naming scheme, but at least a few of those names had very distinct associations. Conihop was a mage who had been turned into a rabbit, Bafin was "befuddled," and Yelmar yelled a lot. Also, only one of those names is female, can you guess which one? (Which makes me realize how very lopsided the gender distribution is in that story.)

Edited at 2016-07-11 07:17 pm (UTC)
Jul. 11th, 2016 08:47 pm (UTC)
I love Conihop!!!
(no subject) - asakiyume - Jul. 11th, 2016 08:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 11th, 2016 07:19 pm (UTC)
I've gone with a limited alphabet and otherwise just my imagination, making up words.

For me the more tricky part is when using cultures that exist or have existed, which can be difficult to get right if you're not a native or at least haven't studied the culture thoroughly. I've seen it done badly so many times, and it ruins the story for me.
Jul. 11th, 2016 08:50 pm (UTC)
Absolutely; I agree. It's cringe-making if you happen to know a lot about the culture.

That's cool about the limited alphabet! Do you have more than one culture? If so, how do you distinguish between them in names? (If it's okay to ask)
(no subject) - frigg - Jul. 11th, 2016 10:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 11th, 2016 07:19 pm (UTC)
Paula Volsky has a way with names. The Revolutionary French-analogue characters have names that sound French-ish, like Merranotte v'Estais, Gizine vo Chaumelle, Frisse v'Enjois, Breuve vo Trouniere.

Or, for that matter, Torvid, Stornzof, Urhnuss, Hahltronz, and Ghonauer all sound German, and Tchornoi sounds Russian.
Jul. 11th, 2016 08:55 pm (UTC)
Those are excellent "off brand" versions of actual French, German, and Russian names. So is it an alternate Earth?
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Jul. 12th, 2016 01:08 am (UTC)
As a reader I have *so many feelings* about naming protocols in fantasy stories. Nothing, but nothing will throw me out of a story faster than an infelicitous use of a real person's name, a very obvious This World title for That World's career (oh, so your protagonist is a cortazaan, is she?), or tossing in something like a disease ("Hi, my name is Catarrh!") among the obviously made up Barathas and Heldirins. I would dislike the unaltered Japanese names a whole lot. Flavor is not wholesale borrowing.
Jul. 12th, 2016 01:40 pm (UTC)
The thing about having a name that sounds like a disease reminds me of how you can get yourself in trouble with a name that means something awful in another language. When I took driver's ed, our teacher said (I don't know if this was apocryphal or not) that the Chevy Nova didn't do well in Spanish-speaking countries because "no va" means "doesn't go"
Jul. 15th, 2016 06:35 pm (UTC)
I'm going to try to remember to respond to this when we get back from vacation. I've just had to many things on my plate of late...
Jul. 18th, 2016 08:53 pm (UTC)
Take your time! It'll keep. And if you don't come back for this conversation, no worries--we will have other ones, and they'll be lovely.
( 73 comments — Leave a comment )

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