Another Thursday, another Names: A New Perspective post, this time with author Jeff Salyards, who debuted this year with his first Bloodsounder’s Arc novel, Scourge of the Betrayer (my review). As I said in my review, the novel is a very different sort of fantasy book that breaks with tradition and delves far more into the characters than many others; its a character study at its core. The novel also continues the seeming tradition of Nightshade Books to publish authors who are out to challenge the mainstream perception and tastes, and I think it succeeds on that level. When I invited Jeff to talk about how and why he names his characters (and places) as he does, this is what he came back to me with.
A Name By Any Other Name
by Jeff Salyards
I’m not a linguist. And even if I were, I’d still be far too lazy to invent languages for various peoples in my fantasy world. Shoot, I took Spanish pass/fail and still just did barely enough damage control to slip through. While I absolutely respect the time and energy required of anyone following Tolkien’s lead on language and nomenclature, I’m far more instinctive in my approach. (Which is polite for “ambitious as a drunken sloth on a super slow bender”). While I love the etymology of names, enjoy hearing how other writers select names in their book, and get a huge kick out of perusing old lay subsidy rolls to discover names that fell by the cultural wayside, I just don’t have it in me to create a coherent or fully cogent system for devising my own.
I’ve read plenty of fantasy novels where the character and place names are obviously derived or inspired from real world languages—Welsh, Scottish, Norse, Byzantine, Japanese, etc. In my series, I sort of took a different tack. To give some context, I opted to keep the mystical and supernatural elements largely on the periphery, especially in Scourge of the Betrayer—I wanted to create and maintain an almost historical fiction feel for a medieval tech-level world, so readers who like Bernard Cornwell, Steven Pressfield, or Simon Scarrow would feel comfy. The locales have plenty of details, and hopefully enough to ground readers and draw them into the scenes, but apart from a small section dealing with one mystical phenomenon in particular that plays a significant role in the story, the setting isn’t exotic or mysterious. In a lot of ways, it’s pretty realistic, with all the grit, grime, tics, plague sores, and unpleasantness that go with it—water is often brackish or unfit for drinking, armor gets rusty, gambesons rot on campaign, soldiers talk like soldiers, and the barmaids don’t look like they belong in the Tilted Kilt. It’s not all brutish and ugly—there’s room for some beauty and pageantry, but I didn’t want to shy away from the harshness and sometimes brutality of the setting either.
So, to counterbalance that mundane quality a bit, I intentionally went with character names that were a little. . . out there. I wanted a historical fiction vibe but didn’t want the readers to immediately associate them with any real world culture. I’m not talking using names like “N’kklevooz’bh’ma” here. Names that seem to foil any attempt to actually be pronounced or have gratuitous apostrophes make my head hurt, annoy the hell out of me, and generally throw me right out of the story. I end up worrying about whether, in that string of seven consonants in a row, which might be silent. Or when five vowels are tied together, should I try to imitate whale song in order to hit the intended pronunciation. Or if the author was thinking, “Nothing says fantasy novel quite like obtuse, opaque, and totally alien sounding names that seem more like ingredients in pesticide, something spoken by a seven-foot tall arachnid from another galaxy, or something I just totally pulled out of my ass by stringing together random bits and bobs from as many dead languages as I could think of.”
So, the names in Scourge aren’t that out there, but they are sort of unusual by design. Braylar, Mulldoos, Matinios, Arkamondos, Vendurro, Glesswik, Lloi, Syrie, etc. are signposts of sorts, reminding readers that they are being transported to another world, but still accessible enough that they aren’t overly jarring or compromise suspension of disbelief. Since the overall setting was decidedly mundane and realistic, and the mystical stuff in the background initially, I at least wanted the names to signal to readers that they weren’t in Kansas or Calais.
I have heard from a few readers that the unusual names (character, region, kingdom, empire, etc.) are a bit off putting at first, and take some time to get used to. But I suspect that has more to do with the fact that I sort of throw the reader in head first with a first person narrator who is already comfortable with all the naming conventions and doesn’t pause to question or explain, and less to do with any inherent wackiness or difficulty in the actual names themselves. Nary an apostrophe to be seen, and few enough are even three syllables, so while not instantly familiar, the names aren’t really that problematic all on their own. Just a little weird.
As for what specifically inspired me, since I wasn’t drawing directly from any existing language or time period (or attempting to echo one, anyway), in some instances I went with an onomatopoeia sort of thing, where the name evokes or suggests something about the characters and syncs up pretty well. I don’t know about you, but I’ve met several people who I couldn’t possibly imagine being called anything else—the name fits perfectly. And other times, you learn the name and think, “Duke, huh? Wow. I was sure it was going to be Eugene or Sylvester.” Well, I largely tried to establish the former. Arkamondos (lovingly or condescendingly called Arki), is every inch the bookish, somewhat awkward scribe. Mulldoos Smallwash is a tough, cantankerous badass who suffers no fools (or much of anyone, really). Lloi of Redsoil hails from a distant steppe culture and indeed has a bloody history. Captain Braylar Killcoin is in various turns mercurial, temperamental, and vicious (though he does have a brooding and even philosophical bent that the name might not immediately call to mind).
And the cursed weapon Braylar possesses—Bloodsounder—is perhaps the most obvious in terms of the name reflecting or capturing something of its “character”. Without getting too spoilerish, I can say that whenever Braylar kills someone in combat with Bloodsounder, he drains some or all of their memories. When you “sound” the bottom of a body of water, you attempt to measure and ascertain its depths, to see if it is safe to travel or if you’ll rip your boat to shreds on the coals or reefs. So, too, Braylar plumbs the depths of the men he kills, in their blood and memories.
Of all the names in play in the Scourge of the Betrayer, perhaps the one I really tried to do double or triple duty with was the name of the series itself: Bloodsounder’s Arc. In one sense, the series is the chronicle (narrative arc) of the cursed weapon (or, as the wielder of the weapon comes to be referred to as Bloodsounder as well, the narrative arc/story of Braylar as well). In another more literal sense, it implies the arc or path the flail heads themselves might take. And then there’s the connotation that the series name also refers to the chronicler (archivist, or arc) of the tale itself.
So I tried to come up with names that helped establish that this world is clearly not our own, that captured some quality or other of a lot of the characters without being overtly allegorical or one-to-one obvious, and one or two names that ideally worked on a few different levels at once (and hopefully subtly and not in a clumsy and ham-handed way).
All of which was still 1/1,000 the work of devising my own language or systems. Hats off to those crazy cats.
The next contributor to the series is author Gwenda Bond on 29th October. You can find a full schedule of here.