NANP: Names As Traits

Today’s guest for Names: A New Perspective is Amy McCulloch, a 2013 debut with her first novel The Oathbreaker’s Shadow released just recently through Doubleday in Canada. Based on the buzz I’ve been seeing about the novel (here and here), I’ve put it on my reading list for this year. Have to say that I’m really excited for it, especially after reading that it is inspired in part from our travels all over the world, and also draws on Mongolian culture. Very, very exciting. And she is also a commissioning editor at Harper Voyager! So, triple the excitement, yeah? Here’s what Amy has to say on the topic of names.

The Oathbreaker's ShadowNames As Traits

by Amy McCulloch

When I stepped out in front of 400 secondary school students in Cardiff, Wales – I was nervous about what kind of questions I would get from the young crowd. But surprisingly – to me at least! – the favourite question was: where do the names for my characters come from?

As a writer – especially a new writer – I’m always surprised by how interested people are in the writing process! The names for my characters are now entwined around my heart, as much a part of me as my own name – and it’s fascinating to see people talking about the characters as if they were friends they were following on a long journey.

My names, like my novel itself, are inspired by my travels and the societies I’ve encountered in my research. As the novel is primarily inspired by Genghis Khan-era Mongolia, I did a lot of research into Mongolian naming traditions. I found it completely fascinating that a lot of Mongolian names are based on character traits that parents wished to bestow upon their children, or that were considered lucky.  Some common names included things like: Yeke ‘Great’, Batu ‘loyal’, or Ghoa ‘beautiful’. This is only one way that names were used in that culture – sometimes they gave their children ‘taboo names’ (like Khuunbish ‘one who is not a human being’), in the hopes of warding off evil spirits.

In the spirit of this tradition, my main female character’s name is Wadi, which can rightly be recognized as the Arabic word for valley, or riverbed. A wadi is often a place where water was once found in the desert. For me, this was highly appropriate, as Wadi is like the water in Raim’s desert – she is his refreshment (trust me, this one got a lot of giggles in Wales!). There is also an advisor called ‘Altan’ (meaning ‘gold’) and a young girl called ‘Erdene’, which means ‘jewel’.

But not all of my names are taken from medieval Mongolian traditions – and that came from a desire specifically not to bestow any characteristics that are too prescriptive onto my characters. Neither Raim nor Khareh are traditional Mongolian names – or Arabic, or Hindu, or recognizable in any ‘real world’ cultures (as far as I can tell) – but they were still realistic for this book and for my world.

After visiting the Namibian bushmen and speaking to the people there, I tried to incorporate some of the names from the Khoisan languages – which are known for their distinctive ‘clicks’. One lovely young man there tried to teach me the different sounds, but of course – like trying to learn tonal languages such as  Mandarin – I found it incredibly difficult! Also, the way of writing in ‘clicks’ in Western script is to use apostrophes, and as a longtime fantasy editor and reader, I wasn’t going to be able to call my characters names with apostrophes in them – as authentic as that might be!

Getting Khoekhoe (Nama) language lessons from Professor Daniel

Getting Khoekhoe (Nama) language lessons from Professor Daniel

I don’t stick to a single convention when it comes to naming my characters, but in a way, I hope that makes it more authentic. Just as in medieval Mongolia, names were taken and adapted as their society broadened, there is no one strict way that my characters are named!


Amy McCulloch on Twitter, Facebook, and Web.

The next guest on the blog is author Kate Elliott, and her post will go up next Thursday (there won’t be an NANP post this Monday). You can find the full schedule in the link up top.


Posted on June 13, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Shaven Wookiee and commented:
    Another cracking post from the ongoing series!


  1. Pingback: Monthly Report: June and July 2013 | Shadowhawk's Shade

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