NANP: The Resonance of Names

The latest guest on the blog for Names: A New Perspective before the series goes on its holiday break is William King, a friend and author who brought be into the Warhammer 40,000 world years ago with his book, Grey Hunter, which is the third novel in the Space Wolves series featuring a young Space Wolf by the name of Ragnar Blackmane. Grey Hunter is the first Warhammer novel I read, ever and I’ve been hopelessly hooked since. I’ve read a lot of different stuff from Bill since then, including the first in his self-published Terrarch Chronicles series last year, which was quite a good book. Will be continuing on with those books in the coming year, not to mention catching up with all of his Black Library novels as well. While I plan all that out, here’s what Bill has to say on the topic of names.

Angel of Fire

The Resonance of Names

by William King

In fantasy fiction names have resonance. They tell you something about the world, the culture and even, sometimes, the characters you are reading about.

Robert E Howard was great at this. He chose names that had echoes of real world cultures in his Hyborian Age tales of Conan the Cimmerian. H P Lovecraft criticised him for doing this but it worked. The names provide a short-hand way of telling where a character came from and hinting at the culture that produced him. Conan comes from a brooding Celtic culture. The characters with Norse sounding names clearly come from Viking-influenced warrior societies. Head south to where the names sound more Roman or Italianate and you are clearly among more civilised societies. Go further south still to the realm of Stygia and it comes as no surprise that Thoth Amon grew up in a society of Egyptian-style wizard-priests. With their echoes of the real world or mythological places the names imply a great deal, making it easier for the reader to imagine the character and the world by drawing on their own knowledge.

Such resonance does not need to come from a similarity to real world place and personal names. It can echo other aspects of the reader’s knowledge such as poetry, history or even other works of fiction, basically anything that rings that little gong in the reader’s mind and reminds them of something.

In my own fiction, I aim for such resonance (and often miss). When working on Warhammer I was greatly helped by the fact that the world already existed and the cultures were already in place. Dwarf names are hard and full of consonants—there’s a lot of K’s in there.

Gotrek’s name is a product of that. His name was originally taken from Gottri Gurnisson, a dwarfish character in the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay adventure Shadows over Bogenhafen. I added a hard K at the end because it sounded harsher and yet still dwarvish.

Imperial names in the Old World were obviously Germanic. Felix Jaeger was originally called Eric Jaeger. I was playing on several resonances there. In the UK Jaeger was a fairly upmarket brand and Felix came from a wealthy family of merchants. In German the word means hunter which lets face it is a cool name for a hero. I was forced to change his original name from Eric because there was another character of that name in the original Warhammer anthology (Ignorant Armies). I chose Felix for a number of reasons—it was the name of the titular hero of one of Thomas Mann’s novels so to me it suggested a kind of highly literate German to me. It also had echoes of Felix Unger from the Odd Couple and in Latin it means Lucky, which gives it a level of irony considering that Felix is anything but.

One of the things that helps build plausibility in secondary world fantasy is when all the appropriate names sound like they come from the same culture. Tolkien was brilliant at this. When we worked on the Warhammer High Elf Army book back in the 90s, we tried hard to take a trick from his book. There are many names that have similar endings. You get name that end in–ion such as Tyrion or Aenarion.

One thing we did that I don’t recommend is re-use the same name for major historical characters. It’s realistic—my original reasoning was exactly that, just think of how many Henry’s or William’s have played prominent role in English history since Norman times—but these days every time I look at a piece concerning Caledor I have to ask myself who is meant—the Archmage Caledor or the Phoenix King Caledor. This is not the sort of confusion you want to foist on a reader if you can help it.

There are other tricks you can play with names that work when world-building. Giving names masculine or feminine endings is quite common in many real world languages (although not in English). In my gunpowder military fantasy Terrarch novels, male names often end on a consonant. Female names usually end in vowel, normally a.

The Terrarch books concern human mercenaries in a world ruled by tyrannical elves. In them a number of the main characters have escaped from the law by taking up service in the army under assumed names. In an echo of the Foreign Legion (and of Glenn Cook’s Black Company novels which hugely influenced the series), these soldiers often take on nicknames in place of their real names. In the Terrarch books you can often (but not always) tell who has a criminal past by the fact they have a nickname rather than a more normal sounding name.

When writing fantasy novels it helps if your names are both consistent and resonant. They should tell the alert reader a little something more about whatever it is you are describing. All of it helps to make the world seem more real which in the end is what most fantasy writers are aiming for.


William King on Twitter, Facebook, and Web.

The next guest on the blog is friend and author Mhairi Simpson and her post goes up on the 6th January, 2014. You can find a full schedule here.

Posted on December 23, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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