Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Name of the R'Ose
What to call your fantasy characters

David Isaak had a predictably stimulating post over on Tomorrowville about how difficult it is to find just the right name for your characters. If you haven't read it, you might want to now, as I'm going to explore the question in the specific, and potentially treacherous, field of fantasy fiction. Val Kovalin treats a similar topic over at Obsidian Bookshelf so thoroughly that I'm not going to retread that ground. Instead I want to look at how I go about choosing names for my characters, and what I hope to achieve in my choices.

My first aim when choosing names is to create a sense in the reader's mind of a coherent underlying culture. I'm looking for names which are 'the same, but different'. In The Dog of the North, for instance, I'd conceived Mettingloom as a frozen Venice, and I wanted the names to reinforce that. It wasn't a great leap from there to employ Italianate names (which also, for some readers, gave these episodes a Shakespearean feel, which can't be bad). So I ended up with names of my own devising, like Fanrolio, Tardolio and Goccio. I also researched Italian names in use in the Renaissance but which aren't popular today (Davanzato, for instance). Then I played with Shakespeare by Italianising some of his names (Laertio, for example). The result, I hope, is a set of names which not only looks consistent to the reader, but also carries some of the connotations of the source culture. It's a short-cut to helping the reader understand from the start that Mettingloom is going to play out like Renaissance Italy.

I also want my names to look good on the page, and to be pronounceable. Using real, or minimally adapted, names helps here (Jehan and Enguerran, for instance); if real people had the name, someone must have been able to pronounce it. In Dragonchaser, I gave a lot of characters Lithuanian names like Giedrus and Skaidrys - these names have a latinate feel (it's only a slight oversimplification to describe Lithuanian nomenclature as latinised Polish) without the overfamiliarity of actual Latin names. I love the look of Polish names but I would never use them because they are just so difficult--and often counter-intuitive--for Anglophone readers to pronounce.

Sometimes there are difficult choices to make. For The Last Free City, where the inspiration was Renaissance Dubrovnik, I wanted to use names with a Serbo-Croat cast. Some of these names are unproblematic (Todarko, for instance, provides no difficulty of pronunciation) but others are trickier. Many Slavic names end "ic" but are pronounced "itch": I chose to avoid names structured in this way. On the other hand, I did retain the "ij" spelling where the "j" is essentially silent: there is a danger here that the reader will pronounce the "j" in the character I've called "Zanijel". I think it's worth it for the look of the word.

I tried to add an additional layer of subtlety in The Last Free City by giving the houses (essentially the family names) an Italian feel, so that they felt different to the personal names: my intention here was to imply a cultural richness and evolution over many centuries. If it works, great: if not, the reader is no worse off.

Sometimes--I freely admit it--I just like to have a little bit of fun. I spent a long time alighting on a suitable name for the eponymous "Dog of the North". I wanted to have something with a French feel (because he comes from the Emmenrule, where I'd used largely French nomenclature) and eventually settled on Beauceron--which, pleasingly, is a breed of dog...

Everyone has their own method for naming their fantasy characters; some are more successful than others. My last advice on the topic is that if you want to use an apostrophe in the name, think very very carefully. The odds are your name will look better, and be easier to pronounce, without it.
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David Isaak said...

I think your strategy is spot on; a coherent set of names has a powerful influence on the reader's subconscious, and makes the whole world seem to have an underlying order and historical depth.

I suppose the biggest problem would be to create a system of names for a sci-fi story--or, at least for a sci-fi story that wasn't meant to echo some earthly culture.

Books like Dune don't count in this category. Not that Herbert's naming in Dune was bad--it achieved what he wanted to achieve. Even with some apostrophes. But the real challenge would be to invent something apparently self-consistent that didn't remind the reader of anything encoutered in Earth history.

Glad it ain't my problem.

Tim Stretton said...

David, as you say, this is a challenge probably best ducked - although perhaps the only one where it would be legitimate to use apostrophes...