NANP: Names Need Their Rough Edges Knocked Off

Today I welcome Juliet E. McKenna to the blog for Names: A New Perspective, a science fiction/fantasy author of long standing who has put out several novels over the years, many to great acclaim. She was one of the authors on my “25 Series To Read In 2013” list and my first encounter with her work, Hadrumal Crisis #1: Dangerous Waters (review), proved to be a really good experience. As 2013 ends and 2014 begins, I will definitely be looking to continue on with this quartet of novels because I find the world and the characters to be quite fascinating. Given how long she’s been in the industry, Juliet certainly has some great advice for authors new and established alike on the matter of how to name characters, and her post is well worth the read, so here it is.

Hadrumal Crisis 01 Dangerous Waters

Names Need Their Rough Edges Knocked Off

by Juliet E. McKenna

As long as I’ve been reading SF&Fantasy, I’ve had conversations with folk who don’t enjoy speculative fiction. Among their reasons, they’ve said, time and again, ‘It’s the names that put me off.’ As we discuss that further, I learn that the more unfamiliar a name is to them, the less easy it is to read on the page, the more it becomes like stubbing a toe on an uneven paving slab. That stumble interrupts the reader’s enjoyment and engagement with the story. Too many stumbles and the book becomes a pain not a pleasure, potentially colouring that reader’s entire view of our genre.

I sympathise. My pet hate is irrational apostrophes. Just because Anne McCaffrey did it doesn’t mean other writers should. Besides, Anne had a specific rationale. This was the honorific marking out her dragon riders. I’m also not keen on five syllable names with inconvenient combinations of consonants. There are times when I honestly wonder if an author has been grabbing letter tiles at random from a game of Scrabble.

Try saying those names aloud. Imagine such unwieldy mouthfuls spoken by a mother or lover, being shouted in an emergency or just in a hurry. Then there are the incongruous names sitting side by side. We’re supposed to believe that two lads – or lasses – from the same remote village where a culture’s gone quietly unchanged for decades are called on the one hand, Blan, and on the other Arden’agas-Ehmai? Really?

They’re just not believable. Real names are like rocks falling into a river and ending up as pebbles. They get their rough edges knocked off as they’re tumbled along by the water. Real names get smoothed and rounded by the everyday flow of language until they roll easily off the tongue. So I collect real names from all sorts of places, tweaking the spelling as necessary to make them easier to pronounce. I find them in newspapers; foreign reports and obituaries are especially useful as are international sporting events. I get others from National Geographic magazine and TV programmes’ credits. Historical reference books throw up a fair few. Just last week, I was at the Awards Evening held by my younger son’s school and glancing over the lists of those getting their exam certificates, I noted a few names that I’m sure I can use some time or other. I make lists and browse them for something that looks and feels right, when I’m creating a new character.

Because we need our unusual names in fantasy and science fiction. There is no better indicator that the reader isn’t in Kansas, or anywhere else they know personally, any more. That’s their cue to set aside preconceptions and assumptions, to look carefully for clues. To my mind, that makes it all the more important that names shouldn’t be a distraction from reading with close attention.

There can be important clues in names and in naming conventions. There are in the Archipelagan culture that’s central to my own Aldabreshin Compass series. The names themselves include multiple vowels and combinations of consonants that aren’t usual in English; Laio Shek, Daish Kheda, Mahli Kassik. More than that, these names bind the hereditary nobility to the domains where they live. Daish Kheda is absolute ruler of the Daish domain and this means his duty to the domain must come first. With great power comes great responsibility. In contrast, a warlord’s wives’ personal names come first; Janne Kheda, Rekha Kheda, Sain Kheda. When they dissolve one marriage alliance and make another, their name will change accordingly. Their relationship with a domain is quite different.

When my stories take a reader to another region in my world, they’ll find distinctly different names that are once again consistent within themselves, to show the cohesion of this new culture. The great houses of the Tormalin Empire are Den Bezaemar, Den Parisot, D’Alsennin, D’Estabel, Den Haurient. Unless they have held the throne and can claim the Imperial prefix; Tor Correll, Tor Arrial, Tor Priminale.

Where did I get these names? This long after writing the Tales of Einarinn, I couldn’t tell you precisely which ones, but I do know that a fair few came from wine bottles. Was that what gave me the idea of using vaguely French titles for the nobility in that particular realm? Sieur, Esquire, Demoiselle, Maitresse. Again, at this distance, I honestly cannot say. But I do know that choosing those particular names meant I had the great empires of 17th and 18th Century Western Europe firmly in mind as I created the Tormalin Empire. That helped me picture the clothing, the architecture, the customs, the laws, the entertainments all the more vividly. Having such things clear in my own mind’s eye enabled me to convey a convincing and coherent setting for readers, as a backdrop to events.

Though it has to be said, collecting real world names is not without its hazards. I don’t doubt that Stephen Donaldson thought ‘Kevin’ was a nicely unusual name when he was writing Lord Foul’s Bane. Unfortunately, it’s quite a common name here in the United Kingdom.  Worse still, around the time those books were first published, ‘Kevin’ had become one of those names used as popular shorthand to mock none-too-bright and unsuccessful sections of society. There was much sniggering in the student SF society I was a member of at the time.

I’m not sure what equivalents in other countries might be – and I would be interested to know, not least to save me from making a similar mistake in future. I can only hope I haven’t offended Turkish readers by using Orhan as an Archipelagan name. When I chose that, I’d only come across it in historical reference books. Then Orhan Pamuk won the Noble Prize for Literature. Oh. Fortunately my fictional Orhan isn’t the series villain!

Mind you, when a name does have particular resonance for someone, unintentional comedy can result. Someone posted an angry Amazon review because one of the central characters in The Tales of Einarinn is called Livak. She’s a gambler and a thief and in his opinion, a woman of loose morals, making this a grave slur on his family name. He threatened to write a book where the town drunk was called McKenna, to see how this author liked that! Well, given the thoroughly unpleasant McKennas already in fiction, I wouldn’t take it personally. But what really amuses me is that ‘Livak’ was originally a name in a tabletop role-playing game, which a friend who’d lived and worked in the former Yugoslavia had taken from a Serbo-Croat dictionary she had at the time. It meant ‘Thief’, so we can only wonder what the irate man’s forefathers had been best known for…

At least we can console ourselves that we don’t face the hazards of writing contemporary fiction. In this Internet age, with social media spreading ever wider, and ego-surfing becoming commonplace, authors can find themselves in very real trouble if they use the wrong name. Thriller writer Jake Arnott came badly unstuck when he inadvertently used a real, and wholly respectable, man’s name for a reprehensible villain in exactly the same line of work. As this article giving the full story, and others, explains why the pulping mills rolled.

At least as writers of SF and Fantasy, we don’t have to diligently google our characters’ names to avoid unintentional libel. We just have to make sure not to jar our readers with those jagged edges.


Juliet E. McKenna on Twitter, and Web.

The next guest on the blog is urban fantasy author Jaye Wells and her post will be going up this coming Thursday on the 12th. You can find a full schedule here.

Posted on December 9, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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