NANP: The Sense of A Name

Stopping by on the blog today for Names: A New Perspective is blogger and (2013 debut) author Ros Jackson with her novella The Secret Eater. Ros is the friend who made me aware of my biases in reading/reviewing, where I paid attention to and promoted male authors far, far more than I did female authors. More than any other person since I’ve started reviewing, she has had the most impact on me because of that one simple fact, and to see her make strides as an author in her own right is something I welcome with open arms. I haven’t had a chance to read The Secret Eater as yet, but its definitely on the radar for the near future, so hopefully I’ll have it read soon. In the meantime, here’s what Ros has to say on the subject of names.


The Sense of A Name

by Ros Jackson

I don’t like to underestimate my readers. As an author you never know if your next reader will happen to speak several languages, or has just finished studying the Greek myths and has picked up your book as some light relief. Even when you’re writing YA you can’t assume your readers will all be young adults.

So I have a cautious attitude to creating character and place names that mean anything, because it can give the game away. I’ve lost count of the number of bad guys I’ve encountered who sport variants of “Mort” or “Mord” in their names, from Mordred to Voldemort. For anyone who paid attention in languages at school, some fantasy can be a minefield of spoilers. One of the worst offenders here is The Clone Wars, which now features the likes of Darth Plagueis, Savage Opress, Cade Bane, and the planet Mortis. My son is a big fan of this series, but the names always tickle me.

Ideally, names shouldn’t say anything about the story to come. But that’s not to say they can’t mean anything at all, or that there are no rules. I have three: names should be easy to say, distinct, and culturally resonant. The first two are a matter of common sense so long as you lay off the apostrophes and don’t call your characters something like Peter, Petra and Penny. What I mean by cultural resonance is not having a Wendy Parker, say, turn up in an ancient Greek setting outside of a time travel story. So amongst my go-to resources are the lists of popular names based on census data, and ones that track the popularity of names over time, such as Name Voyager. Permilia, for instance, was used in the 1820s to 30s, but faded in popularity soon after. I’m not concerned with what it means, only that it dates my character effectively.

I wanted the demons in my novella The Secret Eater to seem old, so I took names from the epic of Gilgamesh, which is so far the oldest known written story. However, I didn’t want to use the names of those exact characters, and all of the back story that would imply, So I used a tool I’ve developed to help me name minor characters, this fantasy name generator. It works by taking an input word and shuffling it round in various ways, some of which are random and some not. Most of the time it will create a usable name after a few clicks, but results do depend on the word that’s used. The tool only changes the letters slightly, for example by dropping a letter or two or swapping round all the vowels. The point of it is to preserve the sound and feel of a language, without necessarily translating the meaning. So my characters Inkado, Salamhat, Fiuru and Veishti are derived from Enkidu, Shamhat, Aruru and Utnapishtim respectively, but all they take from their almost-namesakes is a vaguely ancient Sumerian vibe.

I’ve found this tool can also come in most useful for creating names in a secondary world with an invented culture. If I create one culture and want to contrast it with another neighbouring one, I could pick a language such as German or French. But using these languages directly means taking on a lot of cultural baggage and word meanings that may make a story less credible, in the sense that if you’re reading about an invented world you wouldn’t expect to suddenly walk into medieval France. So using the tool in combination with a foreign dictionary allows me to shuffle the letters of names and words just enough to keep the flavour of a language, without it actually being that language. Again, it’s important not to use anything too meaningful, because a name that’s the foreign-language equivalent of Betrayer or Evil Dude with a few letters shuffled round is still going to be too obvious for a lot of readers.

Using my name generator cheat, it doesn’t take me much time to come up with names for minor characters. I often name too many of them, then end up taking half of them out because those characters were only really meant to be in the background. For major characters I may take a little longer, but only enough so that I’m satisfied the name doesn’t jar. All I want is something parents would believably have named their child within the culture I’m dealing with. I’m not looking for some magic set of letters that will unlock a feeling of awe and wonder in every reader, or will resonate with so much meaning that I don’t need to bother writing the story. For me, a name doesn’t have to do all that much work.

Dracula is a set of seven letters that seem to work overtime, but that’s largely because we’re so familiar with Bram Stoker’s story. It’s also partly down to its derivation from the Greek word for dragon and its similarity to the word “draconian”. If Stoker had called his villain Count Batula it might not have had the same impact, but that may also be because there aren’t remotely as many scary stories about bats as there are about dragons. I believe a name will take on a weight of its own if it’s associated with a strong enough story. After all, the name Edward Cullen would have been considered completely nondescript, if a little old-fashioned, only a few years ago. Yet these days it’s impossible to utter those syllables without accompanying it with a shudder of absolute horror.

When it comes to place names, I do try to create a bit more meaning, or at least a consistency that implies meaning. In my last WIP, a secondary world epic fantasy, I made up suffixes to denote ports, villages, fortress towns, and so on. Real-world settlements have a similar pattern of naming, dominated by a set of common words that are often out of use in everyday speech, and sprinkled with a few oddball names that don’t seem to fit the pattern. I could have easily substituted Anglo-Saxon equivalents if I were aiming for an environment that was more familiar to English speakers, but I wanted a slightly more alien effect. That was my way of indicating to readers that we were in new territory, but not too new.

With secondary world fantasy there’s a line every author must draw with respect to world building. If you spend too long inventing a world’s languages and cultures the story will need too much explanation, and additionally may never get told. Tolkien invented whole languages, whilst Robin Hobb’s towns and cities in the Farseer series have English-sounding names, and her culture is very similar to a medieval European feudal monarchy. I don’t want to be prescriptive about this: the line between strangeness and familiarity should suit the story being told, and how weird the place names are is a part of this. So I can’t say unusual names are better or worse, because both are fine in the right context.

To sum up, for me the sound of a name is much more important than its meaning. So long as the sense that a name belongs to a particular culture is preserved, and it doesn’t sound accidentally ridiculous (deliberately ridiculous is fine), then one name is as good as another. A name in itself has no special magic; it’s up to the storyteller to create that association.


Ros Jackson on Twitter, Facebook, and Web.

The next guest on the series is fantasy author Juliet E. McKenna of the Einarin series fame. Her post will go up this coming Monday on the 9th December. You can find a full schedule here.

Posted on December 5, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Reblogged this on Shaven Wookiee and commented:
    This series is back with a vengeance….


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: