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Worldbuilding 1: Character names in fantasy novels

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Character names in fantasy novels

One of the more rewarding - and difficult - things about writing a fantasy novel is having the opportunity to create and describe a world different from our own; one where magic is real, where non-human beings interact with us, and where reality has a shape and texture that is anything but mundane.

In this article I'm going to look at one aspect of that process: describing, and more importantly naming, the characters that inhabit the new world you have created in your novel. The author's job, in writing a fantasy novel, is to communicate the novel environment in a way that the reader can grasp. Part of that job involves giving names and traits to the beings that inhabit the world you have built; and to set those beings in a world that is plausible, and which contains all the ingredients necessary to make it feel complete and real to the reader.

So what's in a name? Well, think of it this way. If you have taken the time and effort to construct an entire new world, and peopled it with strange and interesting characters, you will disenchant the reader rather quickly if your protagonist is called Fred Smith or Janice Riley. What you call the characters that enact the events in your book, the places where they live and act, the food they eat or the clothes they wear, all have a considerable impact on the verisimilitude of your fiction.

How do you go about naming all these important details, so that it's obvious they do not belong to the world of the here and now, but also so that the reader can relate to the world - and the characters within it - and develop sympathy for them? It's not as easy as it sounds. Or maybe it is...

In my work as an editor, I regularly receive books, including fantasy novels, where an inexperienced writer has filled the text with names and nouns derived from their imagination. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this approach; imagination is a basic tool in the fiction writer's repertoire, so why not use it for this purpose?

Well, there are some problems with this approach, but they are not obvious until you consider the most important person in the whole writing process: the reader. I, or a new author, can invent an endless stream of novel spellings to denote the name of a character, a place or a thing. What I cannot guarantee is that my inventions will make sense to the reader, or appear plausible to them.

If poor old Fred Smith is just not strange or romantic enough to gain the reader's belief, then imagine their reaction when I tell them that my principal villain is called Snrikthylzm. From where I'm sitting, behind the writing desk, this is fine; I know that Snrikthylzm's race speak a dense, impenetrable language, and their name is in keeping with that language.

My reader, however, is faced with a concoction of letters that apparently spell a word, a name; but they can't for the life of them pronounce it, and they will struggle to recognise it when it appears later in the story. Now multiply this conundrum by the number of named characters in the story. How is the reader to hang onto the frame of the story, and become familiar with the characters, if they can't say, recognise or remember their names?

A rule of thumb emerges from this: the names you give your characters (or any other element of the world you have built) must be accessible to the reader; they should be possible to pronounce and remember, and they should ideally not be so similar to the names of other characters (such as, say, Snrikthylzm's even more evil second cousin, Snzokthyklm) as to cause confusion.
I read fantasy literature occasionally, and I have noticed a naming strategy used by some of the more successful authors in the genre that I think is both practical and open-ended enough to provide a wealth of plausible and engaging names. If you are struggling to come up with names for your characters, you may find it useful.

The trick is very simple. Take a familiar name from your own culture, or the culture of your target audience: let's use David and Eloise here. Now let's tinker with the spelling a little; we won't go overboard, but just change the odd letter and see what emerges.

David: Davit, Dovid, Danid, Navid, Darid, Davin Eloise: Elaise, Eloive, Eroise, Enoisa, Aloise, Eluise

I spent all of two minutes compiling this little list, and of course not all of these little variations may work for you; that's fine, but you get the idea. None of these words are difficult to pronounce. Moreover, all of them retain just enough of the original, and familiar, names that they will resonate in the ear and mind of the reader; and that resonance is, I think, sufficient to make them work for the reader as plausible character names.

There are thousands of websites online listing names, usually for prospective parents, and these are a treasure trove of possibilities for the writer searching for character names. I recommend you look at some of these lists and play a game with them. Take the names that look easy to manipulate and substitute a letter or two. A lot of the variations won't make sense, but quite a few will; when you come upon a variation that rings true as a name, make a note of it.

Keep the results of your game in a file. Build up a decent glossary of potential names, and refer to it when you invent a new character. If you use one of the names you have derived in this way, delete it from the glossary, or mark it so you know you have used it. Once you have got the hang of the game, don't restrict yourself to names from your own culture. You may find it useful, for instance, to use names from a specific location for a group of characters that share a culture in your story. So the elves might have names derived from French, the dwarves from Russian, or the dragons from Mandarin.

Will this approach work for place names, or names of food, animals, clothes or weapons? Yes and no. There are other ways of dealing with these items, but that's the topic of a later article. For now, I hope I have offered you a simple strategy for generating names that are plausible and ring true to the reader's ear. Snrikthylzm exits stage left, muttering...

 

When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.