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What's in a Name?

An Interview with Kate Elliott, Rosemary Edghill, Victoria Strauss, Kim Headlee, Deborah Christian, and Katharine Kerr

by Moira Allen

Have you ever picked up a promising-looking fantasy novel, only to put it down because the names were either unconvincing, inappropriate, or unpronounceable? Have you ever wished fantasy editors would impose a moratorium on the use of apostrophes, thus ending the reign of characters named "Gl'mat'ki'a'styl'a"? Have you ever wondered why dwarves are always named "Dork" or "Blunt," while elves can't seem to get enough syllables full of r's and l's?

Choosing the right names can do more than help you create memorable characters. It can help you create a memorable novel -- by creating a world that is convincing and enthralling at every level. In this column, six fantasy authors -- Deborah Christian, Rosemary Edghill, Kate Elliott, Kim Headlee, Katharine Kerr, and Victoria Strauss -- discuss tips on choosing effective, meaningful, memorable character names.

Making the Incredible "Credible"

"Who wouldn't want to roam the mist-haunted streets of Lankhmar with Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, or glimpse the golden towers of Melnibone or Xothique?" asks Rosemary Edghill, author of the "Twelve Treasures" series (The Sword of Maiden's Tears, The Cup of Morning Shadows, The Cloak of Night and Daggers) and The Shadow of Albion (with Andre Norton). Edghill compares names to poetry: Good names can make a story sing, but a bad name can "jar the reader out of a 'sensawunder' about as fast as if the writer had blown an air-horn in his ear."

For a name to work, Edghill believes it should be evocative, adding "depth to the created world and giving us a sense of the person or creature named." Such names, she says, cast a spell over the reader, "a spell of Willing Suspension of Disbelief."

Good names aren't necessarily those that jump out at the reader, designed to impress through their cleverness or wonderful sound. "Writing fantasy is like building a wall," says Victoria Strauss, author of The Arm of the Stone and its sequel, The Garden of the Stone. "In a wall, each brick contributes to the stability of the whole, but when someone looks at the wall, no individual brick should stand out from the others. If names (or other details) are inappropriate, it's like sticking a big concrete block among the bricks."

The wrong names do just that, according to Strauss -- including names that aren't pronounceable, names that are too long, and most of all, names that don't fit the culture the author has created. "If you're going to take pains to make your fantasy society politically and economically convincing, why not take the time to make your names fit that context? Consistency is the most important element. If your names aren't consistent within the context you've established, you detract from the believability of your imaginary world -- and run the risk of making readers think you're sloppy."

Katharine Kerr, author of the Deverry novels (which include The Red Wyvern, Darkspell, and Daggerspell) agrees. "For me, inappropriate names pull me out of the story. If the author has made names consistent with the culture, or better yet, meaningful within that culture, the story seems even more solid than it might have been otherwise." Kerr considers names a vital tool in constructing a rich, believable fantasy world -- and fantasy tale. Finally, a name has to "fit the part, both culturally and personally," notes Kate Elliott, author of the Jaran novels (Jaran, An Earthly Crown, His Conquering Sword, The Law of Becoming) and the "Crown of Stars" series (King's Dragon, Prince of Dogs, The Burning Stone and Child of Flame). "If I'm writing a story in a pseudo-medieval setting, I wouldn't name the heroine Candi or Tiffany, unless I'm writing a satire. A name has to have a weight and seriousness that is comparable to the character's importance and role. There's a reason why, in Star Wars, the hero is named Luke and the bounty hunter is named Boba. There's a reason why Shakespeare named his clowns Touchstone, Dogberry, and Bottom, and his heroes Benedick, Orlando, and Demetrius."

I Dub Thee...

In the real world, names are a product of culture. Most cultures have specific linguistic naming patterns -- including ways to determine masculine vs. feminine names (Henry vs. Henrietta), ways to determine ancestry (ibn Fadlan, van Helsing), ways to determine social standing, and more. Many cultures also have a tradition of selecting names with a specific meaning; Kim Headlee (author of , forthcoming from Pocket Books) cites the poignant Old Testament example of "the naming of Jacob's twelfth and last son, Benjamin ("son of the right hand" - Gen. 35:18), who was originally called Benoni ("son of my sorrow") because his mother was dying as she named him."

Headlee notes that many cultures believed that to know someone's "true" name was to have power over that person (which is why, in many cultures, one might acquire that name in a vision quest and never reveal it to others). "This theme is often played out in fantasy literature, as characters choose to reveal their names or not, or the hero may undertake a quest to learn his true name (or parentage)."

These real-world themes are no less important in fantasy. As Strauss points out, an author who wishes to construct a believable fantasy society should consider the influence that society will have on the names of its members. In addition, Kate Elliott notes that names can be an indication of the nature of a culture as well as its product. "A culture that names girls after flowers, thereby suggesting that they are pretty and delicate, will have different attitudes toward women than one in which girls are given names based on an adolescent vision quest, thereby suggesting that they have contact with the divine."

Elliott looks for names that "fit certain rules of consistency and linguistic patterns within the culture I'm writing about. If I don't use a derivative of a name from an actual human language, then I would attempt to show some kind of consistency in the naming patterns, even if it's only certain kinds of endings for male names and others for female names." Elliott's names reflect not only specific regions, but the diversity of cultural exchange: "In the Crown of Stars series, the Aostans have a grab-bag of names from diverse linguistic sources, reflecting the fact that the holy city of Darre has attracted pilgrims and opportunists from all over."

Like Elliott, Kim Headlee also draws upon real-world sources of names and linguistic patterns -- largely because she has little choice! "In writing about Arthurian legend, some names are handed to me by convention. For example, while it may be possible to refer to Arthur as 'Arturus' or 'Artos,' calling him 'Peter' is out of the question!" Nevertheless, Headlee has used her extensive research on Arthurian legend to come up with alternative (or obscure) variants on the names of several key characters. "One theory about Lancelot, for example, is that he might have been an individual named by Geoffrey of Monmouth as King Auguselus of Scotland. 'Auguselus' or 'Augusel' didn't sound right, so I named him Angusel. His nickname, Angus, is a deliberate association with the region of southern Scotland, where his tribal territory lies." Similarly, Headlee puts a twist on one of the oldest variants of Guinevere's name, turning "Guanhumara" into "Gyanhumara." Why? "Because she was the sort who liked going by a nickname, and 'Gyan' sounded better than 'Guan'."

Besides drawing from cultural sources, Headlee uses names to indicate how individuals fit into their society -- or how they perceive that society. "For example, my Romano-Celtic characters tend to go by their Latin names -- Caius, etc. Those who think of themselves purely as Celts will go by the Celtic form of their name, with the patronymic -- e.g., Urien map (son of) Dumarec, and Morghe ferch (daughter of) Uther. I've highlighted the matrilineal nature of Pictish society by giving those characters matronymics -- e.g., Angusel mac (son of) Alayna, and Gyanhumara nic (daughter of) Hymar."

Katharine Kerr is another author who draws upon Celtic, Latin, and other classic sources to develop names for the cultures she creates in her Deverry novels. "In Deverry, humans speak either neo-Gaulish or a pidgin form of Latin from classical North Africa, and their names reflect this." She looks for names that will reflect some aspect of the character, or provide information about that character to the reader. "One woman is named Jill, a Saxon name (and quite old), because her ancestors were low-class bondfolk. Another, a sorcerer who can turn himself into a bird, is named Aderyn, the Welsh name for bird." Kerr's names may reflect other themes as well: "Often I hunt for a name that will show links between different incarnations of the same soul. For example, the character named Oggyn in one historical strand is reborn in the 'present' as Ogwern."

Kerr adapts these same real-world linguistic principles to otherworldly races. She has given her elves an "agglutinative" language (a system in which a single word may consist of several components, each of which has a distinct meaning). "Elvish names are quite long, translating more like phrases, like American Indian names." Dwarven names, on the other hand, are modeled on Chinese and are very short. They also reflect dwarven culture: "Since dwarven inheritance is matrilineal in my world, I came up with a system where the sons are given shortened versions of their mothers' names. Thus, Otho is the son of Othara, and Enj is the son of Angmar, and so on."

Linguistic rules are just the beginning of the naming process for Deborah Christian, a former role-playing game designer and author of Kar Kalim and The Truthsayer's Apprentice. "When I name characters, I first revisit my notes on the language in that area, create name lists that adhere to the linguistic conventions at hand, and then choose character names from this list or derived from it." Christian often goes beyond "lists" and "guidelines," however, seeking more intuitive and even spiritual methods to find just the right name. "Names aren't just interchangeable tags to indicate Character X vs. Character Y; they should reflect something relevant to the character." Christian believes that names have power, and to find just the right name, she may "do a numerology on names to see what kind of energy or 'vibe' is embodied with that appellation."

But what about a fantasy that is set in the modern, and more or less "real," world? Rosemary Edghill's characters live in New York, eat pizza, and ride the subway (when they aren't chasing monsters in abandoned subway tunnels). Consequently, Edghill doesn't spend that much time tracking down obscure Celtic variants -- but she does want to ensure that her characters' names "evoke for the reader a sense of the character's self." Names, she believes, must also be easy to read, and "go together, the way organically evolved names would."

According to Edghill, Ruth (the protagonist of the series) "got her name in homage to a friend's fan-character. So, naturally, her best friend had to be Naomi. For Michael, I wanted a very ordinary, dependable-type name --he's the son of an Irish cop -- but when I found that 'Peacock' is a common Irish surname, I couldn't resist." And what about the elf, whose origins lie in quite a different world? "Melior got his name from a typeface, because I used to work in design."

A Rose by Any Other Name Might Just Be a Turnip...

Not surprisingly, the primary "peeve" of all six writers was the tendency for many fantasy authors to use names that are inconsistent with one another, or inappropriate to the culture, or inappropriate for the story itself. "I recently read a book in which a character was named Prince Grux," notes Edghill. "Now, he was supposed to be very handsome and tall and princely and all, and everybody else in his kingdom had long, highfalutin' kinds of names, very pretty and poetic. And then you come to... Grux. It didn't work for me in a big way!"

"It bothers me when writers give out names without regard to linguistic consistency," says Elliott. "Often, I think, such writers aren't actually thinking about what they are doing. On the other hand, I've made mistakes of this kind in my own work, so I'm hesitant to throw stones!"

Kerr objects to names that "follow no particular pattern, that show no 'root language' underneath them. In a fantasy novel, I like to feel that I'm reading a translation from some other language, not some jumble of weird stuff. A particular peeve is what Diana Wynne Jones [in A Tough Guide to Fantasy Land] calls 'Pan-Celtic' fantasy, where names are taken randomly from Irish, Welsh, Scots, or whatever, with no realization on the author's part that these are separate, incompatible languages, not just parts of one language." "It bugs me to see an author taking a bunch of names from various Earthly cultures and just jumbling them together, so that in the same level of the same society, you see characters named Hroswitha, Tenuko, and Radha," says Edghill. "This is just plain sloppy. It indicates that that the author hasn't done the work necessary to make a culture feel 'lived in.'"

Pronounceability (or lack thereof) was another key complaint about many names in fantasy. "Unpronounceable names can turn off a reader faster than any other flaw," says Headlee. "And, with my Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and multi-dialect Celtic free-for-all, I'm guilty as charged. But I've tried to ease this problem for my readers by providing nicknames for some of the characters. The mental use of the character's nickname (or not) also serves as a clue for viewpoint shifts."

Edghill objects to the overuse of Celtic names as well, noting that they can be difficult for the reader because they are not pronounced anything like they are spelled. "The two most important considerations for a name is that it can be pronounced and that it can be said (also that it not sound completely stupid, but that's fairly subjective)," she says. "Try it out yourself. Use the name in conversation, just as you'd use a friend's name. You'll find that you get pretty tired of trying to get through that seven-syllable wonder with the two apostrophes in pretty short order. The upside of this exercise is that you will also discover if your character has any natural nicknames that his friends and loved ones would use."

Kerr agrees: "I try to keep a balance between making it easy for the reader to remember and pronounce the name on one hand, and making the name 'exotic' on the other. I've felt at times that I may have gone too far in the direction of ease with 'Jill,' but it's too late to change it now!"

And finally, of course, there is the apostrophe question. "How do you pronounce those, if you please?" asks Edghill. Strauss's opinion on apostrophes is even more pointed: "Too often, they just seem to be a lazy way of making names look 'fantasyish.'"

Hunting for Names

So where can a writer find names that are consistent, culturally accurate, internally meaningful, easy to pronounce, and devoid of unnecessary apostrophes? Fortunately, a host of resources exist for the writer who is willing to do some basic research.

Of course, "basic" may not be quite the word for Kate Elliott's approach to name research. "For the Crown of Stars books, I have found names from the writings of Widukind of Corvey, Luitprand of Cremona, and Thietmar of Merseberg, as well as from the indices of scholarly works on the early medieval period." If all that sounds intimidating, bear in mind that the Internet is a rich resource of original materials -- including many medieval documents, both in translation and in the original.

For other writings, however, Elliott's research may take her no farther than across the street. "For my short story, 'My Voice is My Sword' (a tale of theatre troupe performing Macbeth for aliens), I figured that Earth culture would be global and cosmopolitan [an assumption she also makes in the Jaran series]. Therefore, I thought the names of the actors in the troupe should reflect that diversity. At the time, we were living in campus graduate student housing, populated by a wonderfully diverse group of families from around the globe. I 'borrowed' the names of the children from that community to name the characters in the story, and was therefore able to give the actors a greater variety of names from different linguistic backgrounds than I would have come up with on my own."

Katharine Kerr's favorite reference is Joshua Whatmough's Dialects of Ancient Gaul. She then "ages" those names (or, perhaps, "modernizes" them) -- taking them through the linguistic transformations that might have occurred "if Gaulish had lived long enough to evolve into a medieval language the way British evolved into Middle Welsh." Thus, a name like "Cartimandua" might become "Carramaena," with a nickname of "Carra." She does the same for Latin and Carthaginian names. "Occasionally this method produces real howlers that have to be weeded out. For example, the perfectly respectable name of Noviobrantus ends up as Nobraen, pronounced No Brain. I was tempted to use it for a particularly stupid character but thought better of it."

Rosemary Edghill likes to convert surnames into first names. "They look odd, but are still possible to pronounce." She also uses The Everchanging Book of Names, a web-based artificial name generator, which provides "a variety of different names that you can use as a jumping-off point for your own." To make her elven names in the "Twelve Treasures" books culturally consistent, she based them on medieval French sources. "When all else fails in my search for a fantasy name for a character, I turn to The Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names, where I'm sure to find something either evocative (like Silvertree) or outlandish (like Bugstowe)."

Kim Headlee considers Bruce Lansky's The Very Best Baby Name Book "a must-have for writers, because it gives the name's ethnic background, as well as its meaning and spelling variants." She also recommends the Kabalarian's What's in Your Name site, which provides lists of thousands of names and variants, along with a brief "personality profile" of each.

Victoria Strauss maintains her own list of names, "a habit that started during a summer temp job where I spent all day typing names from college loan applications onto index cards. To keep myself from going insane, I jotted down the interesting names I saw. By now, it's a pretty long list. If I'm ever stuck for a name, I can nearly always find inspiration there."

In short, the diligent writer can find a host of name resources: Online naming guides, original documents, genealogy resources, baby name books, random name generators, and more. Even a simple dictionary can be a naming tool (I keep a classic Anglo-Saxon Dictionary on my own desk).

The key is to use these tools wisely. As Kim Headlee reminds us: "The first part of Proverbs 22:1 states, 'A good name is more desirable than great riches.' (NIV) Of course, primarily this verse is talking about one's personal honor, but it definitely can't hurt to make sure your fictional characters have 'good' (i.e., appropriate) names!"

More Information:

Visit Writing-World.com's Character Naming Links for links to dozens of sites that list baby names, names by ethnic groups and regions, name meanings, and character names.

Related Articles:

In the Name of Love... Finding the Right Names for Your Characters, by Desmond Lindo
http://www.writing-world.com/romance/lindo.shtml

The Name Game, by John Robert Marlow
http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/namegame.shtml

Name That Character! by Anne Marble
http://www.writing-world.com/romance/names.shtml

A Rose by Any Other Name... by Devyani Borade
http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/names.shtml

What's In a Name? by Victoria Grossack
http://www.writing-world.com/sf/crafting28.shtml

Writing-World.com Links: Character Naming Resources
http://www.writing-world.com/links/names.shtml

Copyright © 2000 Moira Allen

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.


Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts Mostly-Victorian.com, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.

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