NANP: Names And Practicalities

I don’t think it’s really possible for me to be any more excited than I already am at welcoming author and game designer Matt Forbeck to Names: A New Perspective. Starting with his historical horror Titanic/Vampires mash-up Carpathia last year (review) to his TV tie-in Leverage: The Con Job (review) this year, Matt’s been one of those authors that I’ve really enjoyed reading. Whether it’s comics or novels, he’s been one of the most consistent authors for me, evidenced by the fact that his work has made my monthly top reads lists several times since January 2012 (here and here). He has several releases coming up this year, such as the second and third installments of his fantasy noir Shotguns & Sorcery trilogy (more on this here), as well as the fourth 12-for-12 trilogy Monster Academy, plus some secret project and a kickstarter he mentioned a few days ago. So the year looks great for him! Here’s what Matt has to say on the topic of names.

Carpathia-72dpiNames And Practicalities

by Matt Forbeck

I’m practical about names.

I want them to mean something, at least to me, whether the reader knows about them or not. For this, I often turn to, a website that allows you to search for the meanings of names. Better yet, it allows you to hunt for all the names that go with a particular meaning and breaks them down for you by gender and national or ethnic origin if you like.

For instance, let’s say I want to name a warrior in my next novel. I punch that in, and I get a list that runs all the way from Achilles down through Xena. I can then examine each name and find one that has the particular nuance or meaning I need.

I want them to sound cool to the modern ear. Mildred, for instance, might mean “gentle strength,” which could be perfect for a heroine that exhibits that particular quality. However, in my head Mildred is a name that belongs with a woman of my grandmother’s generation, so unless I’m writing about a lady in her nineties, that’s out.

Sure, this is a personal preference based entirely on my own experiences. I’d guess that someone out there knows a beautiful and vibrant young Mildred who’d fit the character I’m working on perfectly. There might even be such a Mildred reading this. But it’s my book, so I have follow my gut, not hers.

I want them to roll off the tongue. In other words, I want to be able to say the name of my menacing villain out loud and not be moved to laugh by the way the name forces my tongue to contort. Coming up with a name that is simple to pronounce is part of that. The other part is not having to go running to Wikipedia to figure out how it should sound.

I like the name Siobhan, for instance. It’s a wonderful Irish woman’s name that sounds fantastic — if you know how to pronounce it: shi-VAWN. If you’ve not known a Siobahn beforehand, though, the chances of you coming up with that on your own are zilch.

I want them to be distinct, at least within the book. Ever been in a room with three guys named John or three girls named Jennifer? Even if it happens to you all the time, you can’t call them all the same thing forever. You wind up using nicknames or last names or other forms of the name to distinguish them from each other.

It’s hard enough for readers to keep characters straight in a book. Don’t make it any more difficult than you must. I often won’t even use the same first initials for major characters, just to keep them as separate as I can.

I realize this isn’t easy sometimes, especially if you’re making up fantasy names as variants of the same root words, but do your best. While I love Tolkien’s writing, for instance, Saruman and Sauron are just a bit too close for comfort.

Note that Tolkien violated the “easy to pronounce” preference all the time too. Elves use the letter C to make the hard K sound, so Galadriel’s husband’s name — Celeborn — is properly pronounced Keleborn, not Seleborn. There’s no way you’d know that, though, until you reach the end of The Lord of the Rings and start poring through the appendices.

Now let me tell you a funny story about names. Back when I was writing the first Blood Bowl novel for Games Workshop, they said I needed to make the names of the heroes more Germanic than I had in my outline. Rather than hunt through, I headed over to an online translator instead. I just punched something I thought was distinctive or telling about the character and then used the literal German translation as the name.

The protagonist in those books is Dunkel Hoffnung — Dunk, for short — which means “dark hero.” He rides a valiant steed named Pferd, which is German for horse. Simple enough, and a bit funny if you speak a little bit of German.

The worst part, though, was when the Blood Bowl comics I wrote later were translated into German. The translator left the names as they were, so the text read to a German native something like. “And then the heroic Dark Hero leaped upon his horse Horse and rode off into the sunset.”

You could see how that might wear thin.

The lesson there? Be clear but not transparent, and always let your translator in on the joke if you can help it.


Matt Forbeck on Twitter, Facebook, and Web.

*NOTE* Matt is currently offering his Brave New World trilogy, the first of three trilogies for his crazy 12-for-12 kickstarters, at 50% off. You can check out the details here. I’ve reviewed all the three books individually, and you can read them here – Revolution, Revelation, and Resolution.

The next guest author is Betsy Dornbusch on the 25th. You can check out the full schedule and a list of upcoming authors in the link up top.

Posted on February 21, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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