The other day I was reading a book when I suddenly became fascinated with how authors in speculative fiction think of the names they use in their books. Naming isn’t something I’ve thought much about, but it’s something that is incredibly important to some reviewers. Speculative fiction names are so important in this genre because they help the reader get a sense of place and time. What amazes me is that, no matter how many books flood the genre, the names in each of them are so different. I’m genuinely interested in how authors think of the names they use in the books they write.
Of course I took this to Twitter, and of course many authors gave me honest, insightful answers. What I learned is that every author has a different process for thinking up names. Thankfully, the amazing Elspeth Cooper, author of Songs of the Earth, was willing to write a little something to tell me, and my readers, how she thinks of character and place names.
I’ve always loved messing around with words. As a child I had an educational game that consisted of a deck of cards printed with different syllables, and the object of the game was to use the cards you were dealt to make words – the more syllables used, the more points you scored. As a result I’ve always been a confident speller, and good at crossword puzzles and word games like Hangman.
This probably also explains why inventing names for stuff is one of my favourite parts of this writery business. It’s part of building the world, and in speculative fiction, it goes a long way towards providing the colour and texture that really makes that world come alive for the reader.
So how do I go about thinking up all these weird and wonderful names? Well, sometimes a character strolls into my head wearing the equivalent of a badge that says “Hi, my name is . . .” and there’s nothing more for me to do other than shake their hand and tell them to wait over there until I need them. And sometimes finding the right name takes a bit more work, and the techniques I use vary depending on the kind of name I’m making up.
Country names can be tricky, because I need to create something that I can modify or add an extension to in order to describe a native of that country or its language. For example, in the world of The Wild Hunt series, the people of Gimrael are Gimraeli, Astolans come from Astolar, and so on.
Inspiration for country names is usually drawn from the real world – it should be pretty obvious where Gimrael came from – so poring over an atlas can spark a lot of ideas.
Cities and towns
Again, the atlas or just a good road map can be helpful here. Towns often take their names from a landscape feature or historical event, so I think about any notable characteristics of this town I’m inventing that I can incorporate, such as a mill or a strangely-shaped rock formation – even a lightning-struck tree. Hmm, I think I just invented a little flyspeck village called Burnt Tree, or maybe Clovenoake . . . see how it works?
The character’s personality can often inspire a name, or point me where to look for one. Are they fiery and temperamental, or homely and comfortable? I find words that describe them, and play around with the syllables or the rhythm, thinking about the shape of those words on my tongue as I say them – the “mouth feel”, as wine aficionados call it – until I come up with a name that suits.
I also consider the character’s social standing and their country of origin. The higher their status, the longer and more flowery the names tend to be, and if their country name has a lot of hard consonants then given names in that country will tend to follow suit. For example, a chap called Gabek is unlikely to originate in a place called Lorilya, any more than a girl called Lyssa is likely to hail from Aakevik.
Borrowing from the real world
Old-fashioned, unusual or Biblical names found in baby-name books or websites can often be co-opted for use in a fantasy setting. Esther is one that I’ve used, and Gair is a real Gaelic boy’s name (it amuses me no end that its meaning is “small one” when my protagonist stands over six foot five).
There are also many old or uncommon names for everyday things in our world which can give me inspiration for something in fiction. As an example, take the blackbird. If you grew up in the UK or Europe you’ve probably seen one hopping across your lawn, but did you know one of its old names is merle? It’s a corruption of its Latin name turdus merula. Sounds much more exotic than “blackbird”, eh?
Corrupting a familiar word into something new is another technique that can be used to great effect – see Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series; he did it a lot e.g. sa’angreal is a corruption of San Greal, or Holy Grail.
In my own books I gave the Gimraelis a sword called a qatan by shamelessly borrowing the Japanese word katana. I knew that by making the names similar there would be a resonance in the reader’s mind, and they would be able to picture exactly the kind of curved, single-edged sword I meant and the graceful, fluid fighting style that goes with it, and that would help them envisage the qatan in action.
Is that cheating? I don’t think so. I think I’m harnessing the reader’s imagination to help me deliver a scene to them that is both unfamiliar and yet recognisable enough that they feel grounded in it. It makes it accessible, which brings me onto . . .
Saying it out loud
A name the reader can’t mentally pronounce will annoy them. There was a fantastic discussion about this over at Fantasy Faction: http://fantasy-faction.com/forum/fantasy-book-discussion/do-unpronounceable-names-put-you-off-a-fantasy-yarn/ which illustrates this perfectly.
Unpronounceability (is that a word? It should be) also inserts needless distance between the character and the reader, and can stop them empathising with him/her – not what I want if it’s my protagonist! Worst case scenario, the reader will throw the book at the wall and refuse to buy the rest of the series, which is not a situation to be encouraged.
So whenever I think I’ve come up with a name for something, I try saying it out loud to make sure it can be pronounced easily. K’shaa and his sister K’shelia in Songs of the Earth raised my editor’s eyebrows with the glottal stops (signified by the apostrophe), but I felt that they were no harder to pronounce than the name of the Qu’ran (Koran) and since they were minor characters anyone who stumbled over it would not be severely inconvenienced.
I use a few Gaelic-inspired notations but I’m careful not to go overboard with the diacritics (umlauts, accents etc). I’m not a linguist, and if I don’t know how to apply them accurately, there’s a good chance my readers won’t either – except for the one who does, and complains, and then I look like a muppet. See above re: situations not to be encouraged.
It was only when I sat down to write this article that I realised exactly how much thought goes into my naming process – and how much of it was unconscious. This shouldn’t really have come as a surprise: I’ve described myself elsewhere as a very instinctive writer, and writing all this down makes me sound much more organised and thoughtful than I actually am.
The truth is that much of the invention of names takes place at the back of my head whilst I’m washing the dishes, or floating in the bath, or in that Zen-like place on the edge of sleep, and I have very little control over it. That’s usually where “Hi, my name is . . .” appears, and sometimes he brings along a friend or two. Occasionally, those friends are so colourful and so much fun that they demand their own stories – and that’s a whole ’nother blog post by itself.