Old Friends

Wandering the fertile realms of sci-fi and fantasy has introduced me to many interesting people. I’ve gazed upon paragons, such as Superman. I’ve shared the struggles of ordinary mortals thrust into events beyond their control, in Mordor and beyond. There are people  that have impressed me, confused me, intrigued  me, and one or two that have terrified me. But along the way there are people I came to know very well. They live in books I read over and over again, books so well loved I don’t even need to search for the good parts any more. They just fall open to them at a touch. Let me introduce you to some of these friends.

David and Leigh Eddings wrote several fantasy series together, but their first was undoubtedly their best. The Belgariad is just full of people I really enjoyed the company of. Durnik, Silk, Mandorallen and Barak are people I would recognize anywhere if I saw them, and while I wouldn’t want to fight any of them, I would love to hoist a tankard with all of them. (But if Silk were there, I’d leave my money at home.) These men are so very different, yet play off each other brilliantly. Silk, the amoral rogue and brilliant spy, is probably my favorite to watch, but Mandorallen, “the greatest knight on life,” as he modestly claims, is the one I’d spend the most time with.  Belgarath and his daughter Polgara, excellent characters though they are, walk in too lofty a circle for the likes of me. I doubt Polgara would give me the time of day, let alone spend time in my presence. Belgarath would be great fun if I could get him telling stories, but he’s a bit busy. As an ensemble cast, they are tremendous fun and a nearly unbeatable team. I have whiled away many an hour in their company traveling the world at the demand of the Prophecy that drives them.

Miles Vorkosigan is a different sort of person altogether. I’m not certain we could ever be friends, but I would be honored to work for the man. Lois McMaster Bujold’s greatest creation (in my opinion, of course,) and his family have won her four Hugo Awards and nominations for six more, and for good reason. Miles is a man driven to excel. Physically disadvantaged from birth in a military crazed culture that deplores mutants, Miles is the son of one of the greatest men of his generation. His deformities are the result of an attack suffered by his parents when he was in utero, rendering him brittle and sickly most of his life. But his mind is a tool he wields  with tremendous skill. Rather than try to hurt his enemies, Miles tends to co-opt them. As he puts it, and I paraphrase, “Why should I try to beat their strengths, when I can maneuver them to a place where that strength is useless?” Miles’ loyalty, whether to his servants, his friends, or his world is uncompromising, his approach to problems unique, and his sense of humor hilarious. Bujold’s style lets us into his life in a deeply personal way. We see his struggles, which makes cheering for his successes all the more satisfying. And the rest of his family and friends are equally impressive. As much as I treasure time spent with Miles, his father Aral Vorkosigan could claim my loyalty in a hot second, and his mother Cordelia is a woman not to be trifled with.

And then there is Harry Dresden, star of the Dresden Files novels created by Jim Butcher. Remember a couple of paragraphs ago when I said some people have terrified me? Harry Dresden is on the short list. Which is odd when you consider some of the other short lists he makes, such as “Person I would trust with my life.”  Harry is a wizard living in Chicago. In fact, he’s the only entry under “Wizard,” in the Chicago phone book. And friends, Harry is the real deal. This is a man who commands the forces of nature, who stands between us and things too terrible to contemplate. The facts that he read a lot of comics as a kid and plays RPG’s to relax (he plays a Barbarian.) are merely incidental, and don’t pander to my interests at all. There have been thirteen Dresden files novels so far, and of those there are only two I have not read at least three times. (I will not prejudice the jury and say which ones they are, if only to provide you with more incentive to find out for yourself.)  Harry is a dedicated man, surrounded by characters that are real and compelling. His challenges are epic, the risks he takes meeting them truly terrifying, and his solutions bold and unexpected. As dynamic and powerful as his enemies are, his friends are even better. Karrin Murphy, Harry’s closest friend, is either the best or second best female character I have ever read. Her only competition is Cordelia Vorkosigan. (Edding’s Polgara rounds out the top three. Do you see a pattern here?)

There are more out there. I could go on about Corwin, Prince of Amber. We could talk about Rincewind or Commander Vimes, and the many excellent Discworld characters from the mind of Terry Pratchett. If I wandered out of genre for a moment we could dwell on Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. But in genre, these three sets of characters are the ones I return to again and again when I want to feel welcome or wonder.  If you haven’t met them yet, I urge you to go make plans to as soon as possible. You won’t be disappointed.

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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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