August 11, 2010

The Naming of People

Filed under: Advice for writers — Tags: , , , , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 10:15 am

The naming of people is a delicate art in any book but is particularly important in speculative fiction. Citizens of a galactic empire or subjects of a fantasy king are made credible by the resonance of their names for things, including themselves. Authors adopt different strategies of naming, according to their preferences and what style they think will work for a particular novel.

The Recluce Method
This is one of the easiest, but no less effective for that. L.E. Modesitt adopts this in his Saga of Recluce. Characters have names that are almost but not quite like familiar ones with a scattering of more familiar ones thrown in. The Magic of Recluce has a hero named Lerris with contemporaries called Wrynn, Tamra, Krystal, Dorthae, Mryten and Sammel. He acquires a teacher named Justen, an admirer named Deirdre and an enemy named Antonin.

This method works pretty well. It tends to use a few more Ys than modern English, possibly a result of celtic influence, but generally hangs together pretty well. It’s not my favourite because I think the results are a bit haphazard. I can care about a character called Tamra because I like the way it sounds but Lerris is just a noise to me and Krystal a bit confusing in a fantasy milleu.

The name of ‘Recluce’ itself, the island from which all plot emanates is a classic example of this. It acquires the meaning of ‘recluse’ with a fantasy edge. My favourite name in this series is the white city of Fairhaven, later destroyed by evil magic and renamed Frven.

Other authors who use a similar method include David Eddings and Melanie Rawn.

The Celtic Method
Celtic names are so popular in fantasy they deserve a citation of their own. The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander is a good example of this. Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper grows up in Caer Dallben. He longs to be a hero like Prince Gwydion and accidentally has an adventure that pits him against the Horned King and the Enchantress Achren. Along the way he acquires the friendship of Princess Eilonwy, a sword named Dyrnwyn and a bard named Fflewddur Fflam. The books are loosely based on the Mabinogion.

This strategy works. It’s one of the least adventurous of the options but it gets the job done – Alexander is particularly good at creating colourful and memorable names. The main problem is that Celtic influence is overused in fantasy. Pronunciation issues could also be a barrier.

The Phonetic Method
This is one of my least favourite strategies. It’s typically encountered in fantasy but I recently ran into an example in science fiction. David Weber’s Safehold series has a heroine named Nimue (from another world and background) who is attempting to uplift the characters of Safehold against the will of their corrupt church.

She befriends King Haarahld and Prince Cayleb and sets herself against the forces of Archbishop Erayk. There are a lot of characters in this series and the author has listed them alphabetically in the back of the book, so I’ll just list a few to give you the flavour:

Zherald Ahdymsyn
Nahrmahn Baytz
Ellys Brownyng
Zhaspyr Clyntahn
Ahrnahld Falkan
Charlz Gahrdaner
Gorj Haarpar
Ahlbyrt Harys
Ernyst Lynkyn
Rholynd Mahlry

I could go on since I’m only halfway through the alphabet but I can’t bear to. This is one of my least favourite methods. The author is trying to suggest some linguistic drift (there’s a rationale for this in the background) but since the book is written in English there’s a perversity in expecting the reader to struggle through these names. It interupts the plot for me as I try to work out what these names would have been before being garblerised like this. And I find it hard to believe in the linguistic drift concerned and feel instead that there’s something tortuous about a construction that can produce Zhaspyr Clyntahn for Jasper Clinton. And there are too many Ys. Fantasy authors of the world, lay down your Ys, they do not do you any good!

The Could Be A Name Method
This is the strategy of author Chris Wooding and I’ve not seen it employed by anyone else with the same conviction and authority. I first encountered it in his The Haunting Of Alaizabel Cray, the title itself being an example of the method. Wooding takes familiar names like Eliza and Isabel and slides them into each other to create a new and, to me, intrinsically believable name. Other characters in the same book include Thaniel Fox, Cathaline Bennett, Priscena Weston, Curien Blake and Mammon Pyke.

Wooding uses the same method in Retribution Falls, an unconnected adult novel. The hero is Darian Frey, Captain of the Ketty Jay. His crew includes Grayther Crake, Jezibeth Kyte, Jandrew Harkins among others. He is being hunted by Captain Trinica Dracken.

I really like this method. I think it has a fantasy flavour while preserving the credibility of a believable naming system. Wooding is good at it – so good I was surprised to encounter a book by him that doesn’t use this method and I was disappointed not get the name convention of naming.

And more…
There are other methods too, of course. More than I can enumerate in one post.

My own preferred style is Names As Things which you see in Hex with characters called Raven, Wraith and Revenge, in Rights of Passage with Charm and Ciren, in Waking Dream‘s Poppy and Bad Blood‘s Fox. I might be growing out of it though. There’s barely a name of a thing in my most recent book.

What name styles do you use and how do you employ them?

This was originally posted at my blog and then syndicated elsewhere. If you see the syndicated post, please comment on my blog.

1 Comment »

  1. The Burkiss Way:

    One of the most interesting things about the six-headed Omni-Quarrgs of the planet Cygo-Swarreldong in the star system of Grudni-Vogar-Actinax, in the constellation of “Go-and-upset-another-Scrabble-board-Les-I-need-a-new-name” is that they have only one word to stand for all 400 million nouns, adjectives, prepositions, verbs and adverbs. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Bad for them, because since the word is obscene, no-one’s allowed to use it anyway, but good for science-fiction scriptwriters, because it enables me to go on and on and on about it for sixteen pages before we even start the story…

    Comment by HTFB — August 11, 2010 @ 11:01 am

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