Okay, that’s maybe a bit overly dramatic, but I didn’t want to use the old ‘what’s in a name’ cliche. The truth of the matter is that one of the (many) reasons why I love Fantasy is that authors can go all out with names. Fantasy novels don’t have protagonists called John Smith or Kate Jones who travel to the city of Boston, or other boring everyday names you can see and hear anywhere. In fact, if a Fantasy novel uses really boring names I am always rather disappointed.
That said, names can be a tricksy thing too. For every easy-to-remember Frodo there will be a complicated Laurelindorinan, and when you use unfamiliar names it makes it just that little bit more difficult for your reader to remember them. This is why most Fantasy novels come with a big list of names at the back: just so you can keep track of who is who and where they came from.
For myself, I always like my names to have a certain coherence. Back when I first wrote the fantasy biography of my play-by-mail character Yastar I already had the rule that male names ended in -ar and female names ended in -a or -in. I’ve kept a similar concept in my current books, except male names now end in -er or -ev and female names end in -in or -iel, with an occasional -a.
The problem is that while that does give coherence, it also makes most of them very similar to each other, especially since I’m a rather picky sort of person who dislikes using certain letters. For instance, while Ulder could conceivably be a name in my world, I absolutely loathe names that start with a U (apologies to any Ursulas out there), so I’m unlikely to use it (except maybe for a villain). I also feel that certain combinations just do not sound right for my world. Vixariel, for instance, fits the rules of my naming system, but the X doesn’t really feel right for any of my names. As a result I find myself constantly returning to the letters S, Z, T, P, M, K and the sound CH.
I’ve tried to dig myself back out of my ever-growing hole of similar names by resorting to shortened versions. So while there might be a Kailev, Thirolev, Miorev and Sisorev in my books, in everyday use they are called Kai, Thiro, Mior and Siso. Similarly, a list of women which includes Chiarin, Roivin, Nishalin and Shizalin is shortened to Rin, Vin, Nisha and Shiza.
The next stumbling block, then, is pronunciation. I’d imagine that most people who open a Fantasy novel will stare at some names and go ‘how the hell are you supposed to pronounce that??’ and for my names there are two possible answers to that.
The first answer is very simple: you pronounce them any which way you bloody well like. It’s not like I’m standing next to you and wincing at how you mangle my carefully constructed names – do with them what you will.
‘But how do you pronounce them?’ I hear you ask, which is of course the second answer. The problem there is that I am entirely bilingual, and have two possible ways of pronouncing every name I create. Some work better in Dutch, others work better in English. If you take the name Zashter, it works far better in Dutch, with a good, rolling R at the end. In Dutch the A sound in his name is also different – shorter and closer to the A in ‘path’ as pronounced by an Englishman from the south of the country. The English version would use a more ‘northern’ A there.
A good rule of thumb is that I’m more likely to use a Dutch pronunciation of my names. I would imagine that a native English speaker would pronounce Miorev as Mye-orev, whereas to me he’ll always be Mee-orev. Shaniel will always be Shah-niel rather than Shay-niel. The only time when this doesn’t work is with a name like Thirolev (Thee-roh-lev), which has the proper TH sound which doesn’t exist in Dutch.
I like most of my names, or I wouldn’t be using them. One of my particular favourites is Kailev, and I was gutted to find out that Wayne bloody Rooney has a son called Kai. My awesome protagonist has the same name as a footballer’s son? Ew! But then I figured that my Kai is actually called Kailev, so it’s all good. It’s also been a source of unexpected serendipity, because it’s unlikely that I would have bought My Ex from Hell if the bad boy from the blurb hadn’t been called Kai, and then I would have missed out on a very enjoyable read.
I’m very easy about names in other people’s books. I adore most of the names my good friend Hillary comes up with, and there are few names which outright make me think ‘ew’ (unless they start with a U of course). What I dislike, however, is mixing ‘common’ names with Fantasy names. I started reading a book a while ago with cool-sounding names like Keldran (I think) and other exotic names I can’t remember, until I suddenly ran into a Marjorie. Personally I just find that jarring. At least George RR Martin had the decency to change the spelling to Margaery, which sounds the same but looks much more fantasy-like.
Tied in with this post I’ve started drawing up a list of characters, which is now a permanent page under my ‘Book Background Stuff’ header. For now it only has the names of book one, because it’s actually quite a lot of work to write all of that up, and I’ve had an erotic story plot bunny brewing away in my head since the weekend, so I’d rather go back to writing that up.
Do you like my names? Do you have favourite names from other writers? Let me know in the comments please!