NANP: Cultures and Obsession

Today’s guest on Names: A New Perspective is Marie Brennan, author of numerous urban fantasy novels such as the Doppelganger and Onyx Court series, and more besides. Her latest novel is A Natural History of Dragons: The Memoir of Lady Trent, from Tor, and something I’m looking forward to reading quite soon. I came across her name on a fellow reviewer’s blog, and her book sounded really interesting so I sent her an invite for this series, and was really excited when she said yes. Here’s what she has to say on the topic of names.

A Natural History of DragonsCultures and Obsession

by Marie Brennan

I was in high school when it occurred to me that, prior to the last couple of centuries, you could almost always tell what part of the world somebody was from based on their name.

So why wasn’t the same true of most of the fantasy worlds I knew? The answer, at least in part, was that I was reading the wrong books — but the actual point stayed with me. I started to choose phonological patterns for each culture I wrote about, so that Shikari was obviously from a different place than Ngwela or Sarienne Gorin Chemand. Beyond mere phonetics, I also began thinking about how people get named: what sorts of family names do they use, if any, and do those go before or after the given name? Do their names change over the course of their lives? How about social context — do they use different names under different circumstances, depending on who’s around or what they’re doing? (Oh, I love playing games with who uses what name when.)

That wasn’t the start of my interest in the subject, though. I’ve always been the sort of writer who obsesses over what to call her characters. In fact, I’ve had stories stall out on me because I didn’t know what my protagonist’s name was. (And no, I can’t just put in a placeholder and come back to it later; name and personality are too intertwined.) Sometimes I get a paragraph in and find myself changing it, because apparently I had it wrong. That happened with Isabella, the protagonist of A Natural History of Dragons: I don’t remember whether the switch happened before I started writing or after, but I didn’t get more than a few sentences into the book before I knew she wasn’t called Victoria. I can’t tell you why it changed, either; “Isabella” just felt right.

(Embarrassing secret: I never did find the right first name for the mortal protagonist of Midnight Never Come. There’s a reason Deven gets called by his surname all book long. I went through probably six given names for him, and none of them really clicked. “Michael” stuck because it was close enough to pass . . . but I still don’t know what his name should have been.)

When it comes to making up names rather than picking them from a real-world list, I make extensive use of foreign-language dictionaries as a jumping-off point. Sometimes I’ll just skim through, getting the chosen phonology in my head, and then change letters or mash syllables together until I get something that looks good. For important characters, I’ll often look up words suggestive of their personality or role, then tweak them around until they’re no longer immediately recognizable. Irrith, who features in the later Onyx Court books, got her name from the Welsh ir (green, fresh) and rhithyn (shadow) — the latter actually means something more like “fragment” or “shred,” but that’s okay; what really matters is that those two words combined nicely to produce a name that looks like it might have derived from the Brythonic language that predated the Roman conquest of Britain.

Mostly this method is a way of getting traction on inventing a name, giving myself a place to start. Sometimes, though, I like to give characters names with a direct literal meaning (e.g. Mirage or Lune), or at least an obvious connotation (e.g. Invidiana). Not everybody likes that kind of thing — after all, their parents didn’t know what the kid’s fate was going to be, so isn’t it artificial to name a character that way? To those objections, I have several responses.

The first is that not every culture assigns a name at birth and keeps it for life. Sometimes people take on a new moniker at adulthood, or during some other major change, and then it is reasonable for the name to have significance. I have a deep and abiding love for that idea, and what a name says about my character when she chose it for herself, or had it chosen by people who knew her well. (Also, this being fantasy, even names that weren’t consciously selected in-story might turn out to be significant).

The other response is that fiction isn’t reality. It’s a heightened imitation of reality, designed to create a certain experience in the reader. Dialogue is more polished than actual speech, and characters keep their heads in a crisis rather than freaking out the way you or I probably would. Why shouldn’t I base Nadrett’s name on the Germanic root for “adder”? (It used to be “a nadder” in English, before the N migrated to make it “an adder.”) I don’t expect most readers to realize that’s the source, but if it raises a subconscious echo, that’s cool. I generally try to avoid getting too obvious with the symbolism, but hints of it can enrich the story.

I should probably refrain from the trick I pulled in one currently-unpublished novel, though, where certain names are plot spoilers for anyone who speaks Icelandic . . . .

Anyway, names are how we get introduced to the people and worlds of our stories. For me, that means they have to be a part of the culture, linguistically and socially and so forth. I have a list on my computer of cool names I thought up in high school, but I almost never look at it, much less use anything from it; too many of them are random, disconnected from anything other than the alphabet. These days, I need more depth.


Marie Brennan on Twitter, and Web.

The next guest author is Eric Brown, and his guest post will be going up on the 25th. You can see the full schedule in the link up top.

Posted on March 21, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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