NANP: A Name To Conjure

Guesting on the blog today for Names: A New Perspective is Scott Lynch, author of the smash hit Gentlemen Bastard series, the third novel in which, The Republic of Thieves, will be published later this year. Gentlemen Bastard has been on my reading radar for a while now, given the praise I’ve heard about the series from several friends, but haven’t been able to get to it given the staggering levels of Mount Toberead. However, this guest post series is a way for me to motivate myself to read books like Gentlemen Bastard ones, and I’m looking forward to getting into them later this year. In the meantime, here’s Scott on the topic of names.

Republic-of-Thieves-UKA Name To Conjure

by Scott Lynch

Names and titles, those shark fins breaking the surface of your sea of paragraphs. They’re the most salient feature of your prose, the most visible nouns, the things that poke the reader in the eye more often and obviously than anything else. If you’re a writer, you’ve got to be a snob about these things, dammit. You’ve got to rack your brains as long as it takes to push yourself beyond the bounds of the generic and forgettable. Cut-rate names and titles send a clear signal to the reader that they might as well lower their expectations; if you’re going to be slipshod about the most conspicuous aspect of your work, why should you be trusted to care about anything finer or subtler?

A name has to do its work upon the reader’s eye, and upon their ear (or inner ear), and upon their imagination via the qualities it evokes or the connotations it brings forth. Weigh these qualities before loosing a name into your text. Say it out loud over and over again. Names, like wines, have a mouthfeel.

Consider some of the characters of Frank Herbet’s Dune: Gurney Halleck, a simple, strong, straightforward name fitting the man that wears it. Duncan Idaho, bold and masculine, the surname evoking a place from our own world and time to create an unconscious sense of connection and sympathy for the reader. Thufir Hawat, an interesting combination of a soft, subtle first name with yet another strong and simple finisher; a typically stolid Atreides man whose first name nonetheless hints at delicacy and refinement.  Piter De Vries, hard syllables ending on a sibilant, evoking coldness and precision. Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, a hyphenation that conjures a sense of aristocracy quite lacking in his cousin Rabban, a real bulldozer of a name suited to a character without much tact. Jessica, elegant and classical as befits its bearer, and in its original Hebrew form meaning “foresight,” a quality the Bene Gesserit value above all others. Stilgar, a harsh and Germanic name with a rigid, militaristic flavor.

Write potential names down by hand. Make slight variations and compare them all. Research online and off to discover alternate spellings you might prefer, and to ensure that the name isn’t carrying some unintentional freight from history or pop culture that will intrude on the reading experience. Pedro the Cruel was a very real historical figure, but to my ears “Pedro” is so soft and friendly-sounding it ruins the effect in a way that a harder sound like “Petro” or “Peter” would not.

Google is your friend, even if it is the beginning of wisdom rather than the end. Google every name that gets anywhere near a finished manuscript. Your head is full of half-remembered fragments and misty associations that will spring back to clarity in moments of inspiration, and may seem entirely original. Again— Google them. You might notice that the city of Camorr (a name deliberately chosen to evoke an association with a real criminal society from our own world) in my first novel is bisected by a river called the “Angevine.” At the time I wrote the novel, I thought this was a pleasingly elegant scrap of imagination and was chagrined to realize, not long after publication, that there was once a rather famous line of actual rulers known as the Angevin dynasty.

Phone directories are also a resource well worth consulting. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of beating your head against a desk for hours or days to come up with the Most Perfect Fantastical Name of All Time, only to discover that 50,000 actual people in the Belgrade phone book have it as a surname. Save yourself grief and bookmark the Balegrade phone book! Pick half-a-dozen around the world and flip through them with a hungry eye.

Save yourself further grief and research the cultural implications and obvious translations of a name, too. If the name of your protagonist correlates to something sly and appropriate in Latin or Basque or Farsi, you’ll look pretty clever and the reading experienced will be enhanced for those that care. If the name translates to something like “Cabbage Platypus Dildo,” you might look a bit less clever. If the name has religious or political baggage, you need to step carefully, not merely to avoid giving offense but to avoid puncturing suspension of disbelief. A real-world connection that is too fraught or controversial will be far too intrusive for susceptible readers to see past it. For example, for better or for worse, the surname “Hitler” has a million-ton weight of history chained to it and I doubt anyone has the artistic firepower to redeem it, at least not for a few centuries yet. Try, and about the best you can hope for is to be branded a complete ignoramus or an absurdist.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t draw from the real world. You could lose yourself for hundreds of hours contemplating the boldness, the cultural signifiers, the elegance, and the sheer unlikelihood of names across history, and that’s without even departing the boundaries of the English language and its cultural components.

My favorite historical name of all time is probably Sylvanus Cadwallader, a journalist during the US Civil War. Just savor those rich, rolling syllables cascading off the tongue. I liked “Cadwallader” so much I gave it to the narrator of my short story “He Built the Wall to Knock it Down.” Also consider Kenesaw Mountain Landis, first commissioner of major league baseball in the United States, and a guy who probably didn’t get his mail mixed up with anyone else’s very often. Ponder the fate of the 17th century Puritans with names like Fly-Fornication Richardson, Search-the-Scriptures Moreton, and If-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barebone, a name I am personally convinced could only result from an accident involving a time machine and a Monty Python sketch.

Another personal favorite is my own great-grandmother, Violet Ione Helmbrecht Dibble Dowd LeVang, a woman who never acquired a last name she didn’t like and strung them all merrily along for nearly a century.

Be bold, be elegant, be memorable! A name to conjure with has to excite you as a writer, first and foremost. It has to kindle sensations in you whenever you type it, or even contemplate it. Take as long as you damn well need to get it right, to ensure that there’s live current buzzing beneath the surface, because it’s the kiss of death to all reader pleasure to have your names dissolve into a gray goo of Vaguely McMagical Background Noise.


Scott Lynch on Twitter, and Web.

The next guest on the blog is friend and author Robbie MacNiven, and his post will go live on this coming Thursday. The full schedule of guest posts is available via the link up top.

Posted on May 13, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. There’s also the perils of giving your characters the same names as ones from other books, especially books in the same genre. One of my main characters is called Ned – but then I didn’t read “A Game of Thrones” until after he was settled in my head as Ned (short for Edmund, not Eddard). I also have a King Robert, for sensible alternate history reasons, but… *sigh*

    I must remember to do more thorough research for my upcoming project!


  2. Reblogged this on Shaven Wookiee and commented:
    The latest in the Names series!


  3. A great guest post! I love coming up with names for my stories. I’m incredibly picky when it comes to making my final selections. I’ll end up with pages and pages in a word document that are full of names and different combinations and variations.

    I’ve included some of my favorite name generator websites in a post I wrote about the topic of naming characters. I really like the Everchanging Book of Names and Seventh Sanctum.

    Here’s the post if anybody is interested.


  4. I threw a Star Trek novel against the wall when Ambassador Edentata from the planet Tandenborstel showed up. Edentata = “toothless” in Latin, tandenborstel = “toothbrush” in Dutch.


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