Names in Fantasy

Yesterday was my first critique session with my new writing group, which really is an excellent one. One of the subjects I was concerned about, and a subject we discussed a few times, was names.

There’s a few issues at play here. One, for me personally, names are incredibly important to my characters. My names almost always mean something, whether because of the sound of the words or because the etymology of the name reveals some aspect of the character’s personality or appearance. Naming stops me dead in my tracks when I’m writing. Until I have the perfect name, and I won’t know it’s perfect until I stumble across it, I can’t write a word. It’s not such a hard block with secondary or tertiary characters, but for my main characters, the name must be perfect.

This can be tricky with normal modern names, but it’s even more difficult for names in fantasy worlds, because of course fantasy names aren’t necessarily modern, familiar names; in fact, it goes against the genre if they are, at least for traditional and high fantasy.

There were a few comments from last night that were speaking specifically of my character names, which could broadly apply to naming in fantasy in general.

  1. On Pronunciation Guides. “You kind of couldn’t start off on a worse foot for me than to give me a pronunciation guide.”

This is so totally fair. I too have looked with some suspicion and alarm at pronunciation guides, and the longer they are the more likely I am to ignore them. Sometimes I’ll get curious as to how to say a specific word or name and refer back to it, and really for the majority of fantasy readers, I imagine that’s how it’s used. There may be a few people who sit down, read, and memorize that guide before they start the story, and that’s fine, but mostly that guide is there to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. That’s why I provide it. I honestly don’t care what you say in your head while you’re reading my story. Now, if you mispronounced my character’s name in front of me I might tell you how I meant it to be said, but other than that, it’s no skin off my nose how you think it’s pronounced. I include the pronunciation guide for those readers who want to know how it’s said in my head.

Really, I think from now on, rather than starting the story with a pronunciation guide, I think I’ll put a note saying, “there is a pronunciation guide at the back of the book if you want to refer to it.” Complex pronunciation guides also set an expectation for the reader that there’s about to be a LOT of complex, weird words. That can be a turn-off even for people who are generally fans of the fantasy genre.

2. On fantasy name lengths. “I think you need to shorten these names down to two syllables.”

This comment was seconded. There is to my mind one big argument in its favor: main character names should be memorable, and preferably not too difficult to spell and pronounce. I just went and looked at the books on my bookshelves (okay, the books on my Kindle, my bookshelves would have required me to get out of the recliner) and as a somewhat random sample, I have:

  • Maia (The Goblin King)
  • Bink (A Spell for Chameleon)
  • Frodo/Sam/Merry/Pippin/Gandalf/Strider/Legolas/Gimli/Boromir (Lord of the Rings)
  • Phedre no Delaunay (Kushiel’s Legacy trilogy)
  • Darrow (Red Son Rising)
  • Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games)
  • Druss/Skilgannon/Waylander (Gemmelverse)
  • Wintrow/Althea/Kennit (Liveship Trilogy)
  • Thymara/Alise/Sedric (Rain Wilds Series)
  • Bran/Arya/Ned/Catelyn/Sansa/Robb/Cersei/Robert/Danaerys etc etc etc (Game of Thrones)
  • Kvothe/Denna (Kingkiller Chronicles)

I will say that I hate the name Bink. Piers Anthony was not taking his universe seriously at all, and that’s fine, but it’s not my cup of tea. I enjoyed the story a lot, but that name was like hitting a wall every time I saw it.

So on this list you can see the majority of names are one or two syllables, 27 out of 34 names. Of the remaining seven names, Danaerys is the only one where the spelling really leaves any question as to how it might be pronounced. Legolas, Boromir, Skilgannon, Waylander, Althea, and Thymara are all fairly intuitive in their pronunciation, though you may trip up on where the stressed syllable is. The hardest name up there is one syllable: Kvothe.

So while a majority in bestselling fantasy are two syllables, not all are. 7 of 34 is a bit more than 1/5, or 20%. This is hardly a scientific sample, but I think it’s enough to not dismiss three-syllable names out of hand.

3. Complex names. “Give me umlauts, I love umlauts.”

To me, this is the heart of fantasy languages. No, not the umlaut, because no one knows what an umlaut is. (For the record: ä ë ï ö ü ÿ. The umlaut is those two little dots over the letter, and it modifies the sound of the vowel, typically in Germanic languages.)  Now, the reason I have incorporated this into my Eagle language is for the simple reason that I love the word namarië in Tolkien’s Elvish. That -ië sound is beautiful to me, and it looks more elegant to me to say Iolië than Ioleehyay, which is how I’d have to spell it if I wanted to come anywhere near the sound. Even then, it doesn’t quite capture it.

But more than that, there’s a reason we have all those funky little phonetic symbols. Different languages make weird sounds. If we are building a full world with many different peoples, languages, and linguistic histories, including sounds that one culture makes that the other can’t, then we have to look at the full breadth of our world. If we need to invent multiple languages from the ground up, the only way to do it is to pick distinctive sounds one language makes that the other doesn’t, as well as letters one uses more often, or not at all. Ideally, we want readers to be able to make a reasonable guess as to what language is being spoken, the same way someone who read the Lord of the Rings trilogy could make a reasonably educated guess as to whether a word is Dwarvish, Elvish, or orc-language, or you might be able to tell if a word is French, Russian, or Japanese at a glance. They all have different aesthetics, sounds, and a different feel to the language.

The same must follow for names. Eagle names are distinct from Wolf names. Russian words are (generally) longer than English words. Russian names are so long, they are habitually shortened to Tanya, Tasha, Sasha, Anya, etc etc.

But just like books have to make sense (while real life has no such requirement), so too do names of main characters have to be simpler and more pronounceable than real names, for sheer marketing purposes if nothing else. I think I’ve made a strong case for complex names in fantasy fiction to help ground your world and cultures, but at the end of the day, more practical considerations have to overrule the art sometimes, or at the very least, have to be weighed carefully.

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