NANP: A Rose By Any Other Name

As we move into the final stretch of the first wave of guest posts for Names: A New Perspective, today’s guest is Elspeth Cooper, author of the two Wild Hunt books Songs of The Earth and Trinity Rising, all of them published by Gollancz. I’d been meaning to read the first book (my review) for quite a while, as part of my sort of unofficial 2012 Morningstar reading challenge, and I got the chance to read the book in August. It was a fantastic read, with some decidedly new takes on some of the old tropes of epic fantasy, very much in line with a lot of the “modern” epic fantasy I’ve been reading of late. Elspeth is definitely in my top tier of modern authors and I have a firm hope that Trinity Rising will be just as great a novel as Songs of The Earth. Here’s what Elspeth had to say about how she uses names in her novels.

A Rose By Any Other Name

by Elspeth Cooper

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

The Bard may have the right of it when it comes to the real world, but names of characters in fiction – especially speculative fiction – can be a whole ’nother kettle of finny things.

Names are not just a way of distinguishing Character A from Character B; they do double and even triple duty as aids to world-building, personality signposts and often have deeper significance in conveying themes or subtexts that you don’t want to beat the reader over the head with. Names are important, in so many ways and on so many levels.

Names as world-building

I’ve had a lot of years in which to construct the world in which my books are set. One of the things I’ve tried to do is reflect the way real populations evolve, so in the midland area of the Empire, where people are free to move and trade, they are culturally and linguistically quite similar because they’ve been bleeding into each other for generations and have adopted the lingua franca of the Empire and largely lost their original dialects. In outlying regions, or where population groups are isolated by stretches of sea or mountain ranges, the different peoples are more distinct, and old languages and cultural quirks have been preserved.

This feeds down into the naming of people and places in those regions. I have used real-world ethnic groups as inspiration for some of the different peoples in the Empire and its neighbours, partly as a way to keep them straight in my head and partly to exploit the reader’s subconscious awareness of those groups to help them imagine what I am describing by relating it to concepts with which they may be at least superficially familiar.

As an example, let’s use my protagonist, Gair. His is a name I stole from the real world: it belonged to one of my Dad’s colleagues, years ago, and I always liked the sound of it. It’s Gaelic in origin, and means ‘small one’. There was something wistful and rather sad about it, which struck me as entirely appropriate for a character who’d been given up for adoption as an infant.

Gair comes from a region called Leah, which very much resembles the Highlands of Scotland (think moorland, sheep, lots of near-vertical geography), so I’ve used names with Gaelic or Scottish resonances for the people and places there. I’m not expecting every reader to pick up on this, but if they do I hope it will enable them to paint a clearer picture in their mind of the Long Glen after the first snowfall of winter, or the waves breaking at Drumcarrick Head.

Other regions have their own characteristics. In the Northern Isles, naming tends towards the feel of Old Norse, like Renngald and skalding, and I borrowed from North Africa and the Middle East for characters from the southern deserts. Names there are more guttural and use harder, harsher sounds such as qq and zh – place names especially, like El Maqqam and Aqqad. There’s even a glottal stop or two. I’m no linguist, I hasten to add – I was guided by my ear and the sheer rhythm of the sounds.

By contrast, Tanith’s people are non-human, and have a lilting, lyrical native tongue, so her family name and the names of others from her land share a distinct cadence: multiple syllables and few hard consonants, but lots of soft front-of-mouth sounds which results in names like Elindorien, Denellin, Odessil.

Names that reflect personality, and vice versa

Quite a few of my characters have names borrowed from the real world, mostly what you’d call old-fashioned names, like Esther or Ansel, the sort that fits well in a fantasy landscape. Others I invented based on facets of the character’s personality. I thought of words that described them, then played around with the syllables and how they sound, the way they fit in your mouth as you say them – what wine connoisseurs call ‘mouth feel’.

Alderan, for instance, came from ‘older man’. A Church Elder who was feisty and a bit testy became Festan, whereas Ceinan is cunning and sly. All of this can be intuited from the way they appear on the page, by the way, so I’m not using their names as a way to get out of character development, just their personality as inspiration for their name. The character’s character came first.

Names of significance

Other characters’ names were chosen for specific reasons. In the case of Drw and Drwyn, it was to show a cultural naming convention of using the father’s name to create the son’s. I also used it with Teir and Teia, but Teia is a girl, Teir’s youngest daughter. I tried to show through their interactions that he is particularly fond of her, and perhaps sees her as the son he never had. Then there’s N’ril and Uril, in the second book, Trinity Rising. The same last syllable in their names is a clue that they’re family, and if the reader’s paying attention they’ll figure out the relationship before Gair does.

Tanith’s name also has hidden significance, if you know your Phoenician and Egyptian deities. Tanit was a sky goddess of ancient Carthage, and is cognate with the Egyptian Tanetu, an aspect of Hathor, associated with light and particularly the new sun. Throughout the series Gair associates Tanith with warmth and light and likens the colours of her mind to a spring dawn.

On the subject of Gair, I mentioned earlier that his name means ‘small one’. It therefore amuses me no end that he now stands well over six feet tall and has the kind of physique you’d expect for someone who’s been training with weapons since he was ten years old. When he was growing up he clearly ate all his veggies.

But the most deeply significant aspect of his name is something I never even knew was there until our host Abhinav told me that in Hindi, Gair translates as the ‘one who is different’, or ‘the outsider’. Rather fitting for someone who’s a bastard son, whose abilities meant he never felt truly a part of his society – then was excommunicated. I really wish I could claim the credit for it!

As you can probably tell, I believe character and place names are more than just labels identifying objects. If well-chosen, they add richness and texture to the setting, and provide points of reference with which the reader can ground themselves in an unfamiliar world. If chosen poorly, they can be distancing, destroying reader empathy: if your protagonist’s name is difficult to pronounce or sounds ugly, then every time it appears on the page the reader is going to wince, which is not quite the effect you want to be aiming for.

Getting it right is something of a balancing act. Be too abstruse and the reader will miss the significance; be too obvious and they’ll roll their eyes at you. There’s a lot more to it than just pasting on a random collection of syllables. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a character with the wrong name will always be a stinker.


Elspeth Cooper on Twitter, Facebook, and Website.

The next contributor to the series is David Annandale on 12th November. I have the next set of contributor guest posts already in the mail and I’ll be putting together a schedule of those very soon.

Posted on November 8, 2012, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Great post, Elspeth: I really enjoyed it, especially the insight it gave into your world and characters, as well as your process for developing names.


  2. Trinity Rising is great. Each book is better than the last, I look forward to getting my hands on Trinity Rising.


  1. Pingback: November Report « Angels of Retribution

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