It’s downright unfair that one of the best-loved fantasy series got names so right. We all live in Tolkien’s shadow, building on his work or tearing it down, but none of us can match his mastery of linguistics and nomenclature. He named the nameless hills and dells, indeed. (There’s a fascinating tangle of hair/tree/star/elf in Tolkien, which this old post by Andrew Rilstone touches on)
I’ll talk about the experience of writing Middle-earth material another day; tonight, let’s focus on naming for people who aren’t Tolkien.
Names need a degree of consistency across a culture; a feeling that a name on the page or in the ear sprang from the same area as the name next to it. In the real world, we internalise this at a young age, and pick up on different associations. Sean/John/Jean/Johan (and all the rest) are all variations of the name root name, embedded in different national and historic contexts.
The easiest way to give an impression of a cultural context for names is, well, to steal one. I’m a big fan of the Onomastikon as a starting point – if I’ve got to name a group of characters all from the same culture, I’ll grab a historic culture and start playing around with names from that source. Often, you’ll have to sand off the edges and cut the names down to fit modern sensibilities, but as long as you deform them all the same way, you’ll preserve some of the original commonality – enough to feel right, even though you may horrify any philologists.
Things to think about:
- What does this name mean? Is the meaning obvious? (“Edgar” means “Rich Spear”, for example, but naming a character ‘Edgar’ doesn’t evoke that meaning in the minds of most readers. Naming the character ‘Silverspear’, on the other hand, puts it right in the reader’s face.
- How is the name used? Is there a diminutive version or casual version (Thomas/Tom/Tommy)?
- What’s the naming structure? What’s the order of family name and personal name? Are there other elements in there?
- What does the name tell us about social class? About occupation? About the character’s background?
At the same time, you have keep ease of reading in mind. Some readers may be willing to wade through paragraphs where Ashurreshishi and Ashurnasirpal conspire against Addadshumausur, but too many similar names tend to blur together. Especially for minor characters, use different starting letters (it’s a lot easier to track Ashurreshishi and Esarhaddon conspiring against Sampsiceramus) or add on epithets (“ah, it’s you, Ashurreshishi Silverspear).
For major characters, especially, a name also has to feel right, which usually means triggering some association in the mind of the reader (or, sometimes, just in the mind of the author). The name has to fit the character.
For example, there’s a prominent character in Book 3 who’s currently called Hawse – my internal association with that goes to hawser, a cable for mooring or towing a shop, but there’s also undertones of ‘house’ and ‘saw’ – mooring, sheltering, but harsh and cutting, all of which fit. In The Gutter Prayer, Eladora is partially named in reference to my grandmother Leanora, who was also a historian & teacher, so the rhythm of the name feels like books and essays and history to me.
I cheated a little with some of the other names in The Gutter Prayer. Carillon’s name, for example, gives a lot of her origin away right on the first page. (then again, she was named by her grandfather, who knew what he was doing…). And her family name of Thay is strong and vaguely sinister – it sounds a bit like They, it’s Them. (Also, I was probably subconsciously influenced by the Red Wizards of Thay).
Spar’s name comes from feldspar, obviously enough – and I retroactively declared that some people in Guerdon use patronymic surnames because his relationship with his father is important and I wanted to keep foregrounding that, hence Idgeson.
Rat is obviously a nickname.
Jere’s first name is simple, and has a little bit of an everyman quality to it. It quickly connects to “Jeer“, which he does quite a bit.
Heinreil, the sinister master of the Thieves’ Guild, has an obviously Germanic vibe; I suspect he wandered in from the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Professor Aloysius Ongent probably started as an unguent, and the “Aloysius” was for a monk in my old primary school. His son Miren has a connotation of ‘Mirror’ and ‘myrrh -> anointment’ in my head.
And Guerdon itself – Guerdon is an actual word, but it feels like a place name – the ‘Don’ for London, and maybe a little guerre outside the city with the Godswar…
I was interviewed by Grimdark Magazine and Fantastica Ficcion (english version). Reviews of the Gutter Prayer continue to be (mostly) positive and (always) welcome (most recently, this one from Aquavenatus), and I think I’m contractually obliged to mutter about ritual offerings to the Algorithm of Amazon or something….