NANP: On the Appropriateness of Names and Naming Customs

Today on Names: A New Perspective, I’m hosting friend and author Aliette de Bodard, who penned the (frankly) mind-blowing Aztec noir fantasy trilogy Obsidian and Blood (review). I’ve read some of her short fiction as well (ranging from Vietnamese space opera to Aztec science fantasy), and that too has been a delightful experience. Given her French-Vietnamese background and the fact that she writes a very different style of speculative fiction than most mainstream authors, she is a perfect fit for this guest post series. This is what she has to say.

ObsidianBlood-144dpiOn the Appropriateness of Names and Naming Customs

by Aliette de Bodard

Names are a deceptively simple aspect of worldbuilding: simple because they seem quite straightforward to think through, but deceptive because they are such a huge aspect of a work. To most readers, names will be an entry point into the universe the author has created; and names might also be one of the few things that readers remember clearly. Hence the onus on the author to think through the process of naming.

My names are, first and foremost, deeply appropriate to a setting and a culture: an ethnical Thai will not pick the same names as a White American; the daughter of a Vietnamese official in the 17th Century will not have the same kind of name as a modern-day Vietnamese businessswoman; a French blueblood will be named differently from the French son of factory workers. Ways of naming change and evolve with time, with social class, with ethnicity and a myriad other factors which can render the process of naming quite intricate!

Names can also be Easter Eggs: they can have a symbolism that readers can appreciate after reading the book. It’s a bit of a tricky approach to have, because if the Easter Egg is too obvious and too revelatory, it might break down some people’s enjoyment of the book. On the other hand, if it’s too obscure, there is little pleasure to be derived from its revelation. In my work, I’ve sometimes made deliberate allusions. My novella On a Red Station, Drifting was heavily inspired by the Chinese Classic Dream of Red Mansions; and one of the main characters Linh is named after her counterpart Lin Daiyu in the earlier book. Another character, Huu Hieu, has a deeply ironic name which means “very filial” in Vietnamese, whereas the character in question is anything but filial and/or attached to his ancestral duties. And the name of the space station, Prosper, is shorthand for “Prosperity”, perfect for a station that was once wealthy but now finds itself in a difficult situation because of war and the scarcity of food supplies.

There is, of course, always fudging that goes on with names, mainly as a compromise between accuracy and understandability by a mostly Western Anglophone audience. In my Aztec noir series Obsidian and Blood, to be historically accurate, I would have had to give long and elaborate names to my noble characters–but, given that many English-speakers already found names like “Acatl” and “Eleuia” difficult due to unusual combinations of vowels/consonants, I opted for names that didn’t exceed three syllables, and did my best to pick “simple” ones by Anglophone standards. Similarly, Vietnamese has a lot of sounds that English doesn’t have, and when naming characters I have to be careful to keep them distinctive enough: a Vietnamese has no trouble differentiating between “dong” (arrowroot) and “đông”(winter) (and the pronunciation of them is indeed radically different), but both names transcribe to the same English writing of “dong”…

Finally, the way names are used also tell you a lot about the setting. In French society (and to some extent Western society), I am used to particular ways of dealing with names: using first names is strongly correlated with intimacy; diminutives tend to be shorter versions of a name (like “Alexandre” shortened to “Alex”); women tend to take their husband’s names after marriage, etc. But even in the 21st century, you’ll find societies where this isn’t true: Vietnamese use one another’s first name even when not deeply intimate; Russian affectionate forms can be longer than the original names, or follow a different logic than merely chopping off the last syllables (“Aleksander” to “Sasha”); in a lot of non-Christian societies women keep their last names even after marriage… If you can already have such a variation on the use of names today, imagine what you could have on another planet or in an entirely different world where magic is real….


Aliette de Bodard on Twitter, Facebook, and Web.

You can also check out Aliette’s guest post on “Writing Convincing Non-Western Fantasy” for The Founding Fields here.

The next guest on the series is friend and author Zachary Jernigan, on the 7th. The full schedule and a list of upcoming guest can be found in the link up top.


Posted on February 4, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Ah, missed this the first time around.

    I caught, from Vietnamese history, a couple of easter eggs in On a Red Station, Drifting…and missed many many others.


  1. Pingback: Monthly Report – February 2013 | Angels of Retribution

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