NANP: Angels and Dragons

As another month of Names: A New Perspective begins to wind down, today I host James Maxy, author of the Dragon Age (nothing to do with the game) and Dragon Apocalypse series from Solaris Books. I’ve read only the first Dragon Apocalypse book, Greatshadow (review), to date, but I’m definitely eager to read more since I found it to be one of the best-written fantasy novels featuring dragons. James writes with a great flair for awesome action sequences and some wonderful team dynamics, and I’m very hopeful for the sequel, Hush, which has been sitting somewhere on Mount Toberead for a while now. Before I begin reading the book however, here’s what James has to say on the topic of names.

greatshadowAngels and Dragons

by James Maxey

I should confess up front that my first fantasy novel, Bitterwood, has some absolutely atrocious fantasy names. I was reading about angels at the time I was building my world dominated by dragons, and tried to capture some of the exotic flair of angel names. This meant my dragons had polysyllable names with lots of X, Z, and V sounds. The trio of most important dragons in the plot are Albekizan, Shandrazel, and Vendevorex, mouthfuls all. Fortunately, my choice of names didn’t sink the book; it got published, managed to get translated in a couple of different languages, and has gone through several printings. Still, whenever I go to conventions and meet fans who’ve read the book, I kind of cringe when they try to stumble through the character names. It’s not that I’m bothered that they pronounce the names differently than I heard them in my head, I just feel bad that I inflicted such infelicitous syllable thickets upon my readers.

The human names in that book weren’t much better. They were shorter, at least; Jandra, Bant, Zeeky, and Pet. But, there wasn’t a real scheme behind the human names. They might not have been eyesores, but they weren’t imbued with any sort of cultural significance or symbolism.

For my new fantasy series, the Dragon Apocalypse, I went to the other extreme with my naming conventions, using no made-up words at all. Instead, since my world was dominated by an extremely conservative religion similar to Christianity, I stole from the Puritans the tradition of naming people for virtues like Faith, Hope, and Prudence. Then, I blended this with an underworld where no one uses their real names and are instead assigned nicknames. So, my two main characters are Stagger and Infidel; Stagger gained his name by being drunk nearly every waking hour, and Infidel gained her nickname because assassins in black robes keep jumping out of dark alleys with knives drawn, shouting, “Infidel!” as they try to stab her. (The story of how she earned the wrath of the church is one of the books more intriguing subplots.)

My goal wasn’t gritty realism. Instead, I wanted the book to read like a playful comic book about medieval superheroes. Instead of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America, I have Lord Tower, Menagerie, and the Whisper. All the names reflect the various superpowers of the characters. Tower’s invulnerable, Menagerie’s a shape-shifter, and the Whisper is an invisible and silent assassin. Since I have over a dozen super-powered characters, the names were a useful shortcut. I didn’t have to tell the origins of most of these characters; they just enter the book with their powers, the reader figures out what they can do in a page or two, and I can get on with the adventure.

Of course, that won’t work for the novel I’m currently working on. It’s set in the real world circa 1902, in Kansas. So, I’m sticking with real life names appropriate for the era. One of my characters is named Esau Bejano. He’s a freak with hypertrichosis (so he’s covered in thick hair). There was a famous Mexican family named Bejano that produced several hairy men who worked in freak shows, so Esau’s last name grounds him in actual history. The name Esau works because the Biblical Esau is noted as being hairy enough that his blind father was fooled into thinking his son was present when he touched a shaggy ram’s hide. And, like the Biblical Esau, my character is someone who had his birthright taken from him, when his father’s fortune was stolen by a man they thought they could trust.

But, for all the good reasons to name my character Esau Bejano, there’s one huge reason I shouldn’t: When read out loud, his name is mush, starting and ending on a vowel, with no hard consonant inside to anchor it. Since Bitterwood just came out as an audiobook, I’m currently particularly sensitive to the way names sound to the ear. Right now, the pros of the name are outweighing the cons, but there’s no telling what will happen in the final draft.

Some writers I know find it strange that I can change the name of a major character from one draft to the next. They feel a name is an essential part of character creation, and once a character is named that name should be set in stone. For me, as long as I’m giving the reader a well-balanced meal of compelling characters and driving plot, the names are just garnish. I frequently shuffle whole cast names because I’ll have a minor character whose name just strikes my fancy, so I’ll trade his name with a major character. Or, I’m certain I have all my names nailed down, then read the story out loud in my final draft and find I have two characters with quite similar names and realize I need to change one. There’s seldom any point in getting too attached to a name. Sometimes, a good name might make a character a tiny bit more interesting, and a bad name might slow the reader down a tiny bit. But, as my experience with Bitterwood shows, even terrible names aren’t going to sink a compelling book. Focus on building compelling characters in an interesting plot, and readers will get used to almost any name. (And, if readers would like to see if that’s true in Bitterwood, I would note that the book is currently available as a free download from Amazon.)


James Maxey on the Web.

The next guest on the blog is author and friend Patrick Hester, and his post will go up this coming Monday, on the 27th. You can find the full schedule in the link up top.

Posted on May 23, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. >>I went to the other extreme with my naming conventions, using no made-up words at all. Instead, since my world was dominated by an extremely conservative religion similar to Christianity, I stole from the Puritans the tradition of naming people for virtues like Faith, Hope, and Prudence.>>

    Aha! I thought I noticed a pattern!


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


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