Fantasy Names, Character and Complexity (redux)

Names sit within a fantasy novel differently then most other fiction.  Standard contemporary names are familiar to our ears.  When we read them, they are easily remembered and our mind simply flows over them.

“Sally.”

A mutter.

“Wake up now, Sally.”

A louder mutter: leeme lone.

He shook her harder.

“Wake up.  You got to wake up!”

Charlie.

Charlie’s voice.  Calling her.  For how long?

Sally swam up out of sleep.

The Stand, Steven King.

The opening moments of The Stand fix the names of the characters quickly into our minds.  Sally and Charlie are names we are familiar with, names that we do not need to read.  We see them and remember them easily.

When this is applied to fantasy fiction, it sometimes becomes a challenge to retain the glue that makes the reader remember an important name.   One common trope is simply using western names, perhaps adjusting the spelling. Jon Snow and Richard Raul stick in your memory.

Yet, often the fantasy writer wants a name that is unique to their world and their vision, the co-opting of western names is too familiar. Names such as Gandalf and Belgarad and Elric and Conan all place us in a different world, a place other than the earth we know. By their sheer difference and unfamiliarity they set us firmly inside the imagined world of the author.

Creating unique names that feel firmly grounded inside a story can be a real challenge, one that is sometimes won in many different ways.  Simplicity is often most effective for names the reader will continuously encounter. If a name is difficult to pronounce it can easily draw focus towards the spelling and pronunciation, pulling the reader out of the story.  That said, these difficult names can be effective when used sparingly and appropriately.

As main character names, Elric and Moonglum are similar to Eric and Mathew (or, in the case of Moonglum, even more similar to a two name contraction such as Bobby-Jo).  Once a reader has seen them a few times, they are easy to read, pronounce and remember.  You can read those names on every third line and they become invisible, sinking deep into the prose.   At the same time Moorcock has gods with names like Nnuuurrrr’c’c, which are extremely difficult and would get annoying to read on every page.  But as the name of a god that is infrequently used in the text, it gives character and history to an imagined world.

I’m not sure if I have a point here, but if I do, it has something to do with difficult, unpronounceable names for major characters that I need to remember, as well as too much similarity in names.  A simple name like Jon or Fitz can be great and give your character an instant hold on the reader.  But sometimes I see too many names along side those.  If a story has Brandon and Brant and Miss Brannel and the town of Branfort and the local drink is Brandy, I will quickly become confused and frustrated.  A little variety goes a long way, as well as some level of readability.  I can at least read Brandon and Brant in my head and pronounce them, but consistently trying to skip over the names R’Kath’in’Th and Hihyuyuiuaylly will quickly turn my head to mush.  Those names have their place, as Moorcock does so well, but their place they do have.

To end, here are a few of my favorite names in fantasy.

  • Aragorn – JRRT
  • Fitz – Robin Hobb
  • Serra Diora and Jewel – Michelle West
  • Rhapsody – Elizebeth Hayden
  • Randall Flagg – Steven King
  • Xabbu! – Tad Williams
  • Silk – David Eddings
  • Elric – Michael Moorcock

Those are just a few, off the top of my head for no reason.  I am sure there are more great names out there; some more reading and I’ll find those Jewel’s.

(this is legacy post, heavily edited and reprinted because I love this topic!)

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One Response to Fantasy Names, Character and Complexity (redux)

  1. Sam Gafford says:

    Excellent post! Naming a character is probably one of the hardest things a writer does. As we so often hear in bad movies and comics, there is power in a name. Would Frodo be as heroic if he were named Sherman? Then too, names carry a lot of connotations. A strong, short name like “Mike” conveys toughness where a character named “Norman” will make the reader think of a weak person. As readers, we bring our previously conceived conceptions of what type of person is embodied by certain names. Sometimes, writers use that as a shortcut to play on that assumption.

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