NANP: The Entonomicon

Today’s guest on Names: A New Perspective, after the recent 4th of July day-off, is Adrian Tchaikovsky, the author of the Shadows of the Apt fantasy series from Tor. I recently got to read the first book, Empire In Black and Gold, and one of the high points of the book was how the world was presented as one where insects are dominant, and are all divided into different “tribes” known as kinden, with their own regional variations on each. The idea of these insect-kinden as characters (presented as pseudo-humans of sorts) was quite interesting, and so was Adrian’s naming convention, which is what he talks about here. While not my favourite book of the month, Empire In Black and Gold is definitely among the better ones I’ve read this year and I’m definitely on to read the sequel. Fingers crossed! In the meanwhile, here’s Adrian on names in Shadows of the Apt.

04 AdrianTchaiShadows01The Entonomicon: The Book of Insect Names

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

There’s been a lot of sage stuff written about the naming of characters in this column. It’s every bit as difficult as naming cats. For the record, as other writers have reported here, many of my characters come with their own names, shiny and ready to use. What I’m talking about here, though is names as world-building, names that characterise societies as well as simply the characters themselves.

A lot of work went into the creation of the insect-kinden and their world for the Shadows of the Apt series. Most particularly, I’ve sweated blood over the various cultures, the kinden themselves. They have their totem insect, their character, their Art (powers), their traditions, government, histories, alliances and old enmities. And they have their names. Hence, when I reach for a new Wasp-kinden officer, for example, the name he will march up with will fit him, but also fit his past and the culture that gave rise to him.

At the broad level, it’s simply that each culture has its conventions. If you see a name ending in “os” it’s likely to be attached to a male Moth-kinden, whereas a latinate “ius” is more likely an Ant. It goes beyond that, though. When you’ve established a cultural norm, for example, you can then break it, in the same way as the cultural stereotypes (as, generally, imposed by those from outside those cultures) frequently founder when you meet individuals don’t fit them. I’m a firm believer in kinden not determining culture, and culture not determining character. There are scholarly Wasps, straightforwardly honest Spiders and outcast Ants.

Names can tell stories about the characters that bear them, and about the societies they come from. Two characters (Totho and Despard) have names from the ‘wrong’ kinden, for example. The reason being that they are both children of orphanages rather than named by parents. Similarly, amongst the Spiderlands, both cities and ships have names with a masculine ending. Why? Because they’re ruled by women, just like the men.

Surnames and other addons also tell their own cultural stories. Commonwealers have a family forename to indicate the ancient and rather tradition-bound nature of their crumbling culture – everything is being done as it was in the days of their ancestors, whose names they still bear. Beetle-kinden tend to have names, and especially surnames, that relate to industry, activity, materials or even components (often a little time-mangled) : Maker, Monger, Gripshod, Allanbridge. This relates to their deep history as a slave people before the revolution, where their clans were categorised by the sort of work they did. With Beetles in particular this also allows a certain amount of authorial name-calling. The devious and conniving Helmess Broiler, for example, is always stirring the pot metaphorically speaking.

Names also track a record of the interaction of cultures. The fancy names of the Spider-kinden Aristoi families resemble those of the ancient civilization of Khanaphes precisely because, when they rose to power, it was those sandals they were trying to step into.

None of this is explicit – a lot of it is an author at play behind the scenes, thankfully for my readers.  For me, it’s important that I  know this sort of deep background, because hopefully it feeds into a more well-realized world. It means that the names form part of an overall web of interlaced detail that forms the backdrop for the plot and the characters. It means that every character, even the most minor, comes into being with a past and a history, simply by virtue of being from a given place, and bearing a given name.


Adrian Tchaikovsky on Web.

The next guest on the blog is Joe Parrino, and his post will go up this Thursday on the 11th. You can find the full schedule in the link up top.

Posted on July 8, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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