What’s in a Name?

I find when writing a story, particularly since working on this fantasy novel, what a double-edged sword the act of naming can be. A character’s name can tell you a lot about them, if you choose. Their name can lay back story, inform you about the character’s family and upbringing, traditions, language and so forth. It can be a reflection of their personality if they prefer a shortened version or a nick name, or a fake one. Also, in fantasy fiction, you have the added advantage/disadvantage of making up the names you give to characters, and places.

I find this can lead to some real eureka moments – and they’re amazing when they happen – where you think of a name for a place or a person which tells you loads about them without having to explain it. Show, don’t tell is the golden rule of fiction writing, after all.

However, if you struggle to think of one, it can be a real stumbling block. I find once I’ve named a character or location successfully, I can imagine them completely with almost no effort. If, however, I cannot think of a good name for them, I struggle to understand them, or feel they’re not coming across in the text the way I want them to. And if you’ve set a precedent, as is often the case in fantasy writing, of making up names from thin air, it can make it very tricky to come up with something both interesting and original enough to represent the character, but which is also realistic given the setting you’ve placed them in.

Of course you can always go down the George R. R. Martin road and throw in a smattering of real names, Jamie, Bran, Ned, sometimes with other-worldly twists (I particularly liked Ned being short for Eddard rather than the traditional Edward), in with all the fantastical names like Daenerys and Tyrion. This mix up of the real and the fantastic really creates a believable backdrop to the story, like it’s set in another world not so far away from ours. So you’re still escaping, you’re still somewhere other, but you feel like you really there because you understand it.

Someone who is also effortlessly amazing at naming characters and places, I’ve found, is Robin Hobb. In her Farseer books (she has written many amazing books: I strongly recommend the Farseer Trilogy and The Tawny Man Trilogy. For full bibliography see her website here) there are strong traditions which inform the naming of their children. The power of the name is something the people of her fictional land of the Six Duchies feel is very strong, and Hobb consistently names her characters with this in mind, placing the characters inextricably in their environment, but also giving the reader instant access to their personalities. Also, the place names – Farrow, Withywoods, Tilth – are original but believable and true to the universe she’s created. I admire her talent for this immensely.

The ruling family of the land in my book have taken to naming themselves after plants: the main character is called Rowanwood, his older brother is Alder and his sister is Iris. I am trying to establish the reasons for this tradition within the text but have yet to find a convincing juncture. Hopefully one will arise before the end of the novel! If one doesn’t I will have to make one: there needs to be a reason they all have similar names, it can’t just be left unexplained, but I can’t just come out and explain it in so many words. It will be much more effective if the reader finds out naturally.

The characters from lands further south I have tried to make more exotic like Zeeta and Oleeyana. His tutor is from another country, but not the warm, indulgent southern lands so I tried to think of something simpler for him. He is called Maveer and I have made ‘veer’ a tag for a lot of words and names from his homeland, hoping this will be convincing. However, I don’t think the name Maveer suits the kind of character he is. I write the name out of habit, not because it belongs to the character. I’m thinking it might change before the end.

Similarly, up until very recently, the land that Rowan is prince of was called Lua. I have never liked this. I think it sounds like a human name and not a very inspired one. I have such a powerful image of this land and it pained me having to name it Lua every time it was mentioned in conversation, because it just didn’t summon up the image I wanted. But I struggled for a long time to think of a new one. In the end I thought of place names that already exist which conjure the sort of image I wanted.

In the end I’ve settled on Anelon, which has a nice Arthurian feel to it, and lends itself to being the name of a language (Anelonion) and also resonates with the name of the ruling city were Rowan lives (also taken from a real place, the city I live in, in fact) which is called Aucaster. I’m finally beginning to feel like the land has an identity.

I’ve more often than not found that this is the answer when stuck with naming someone or some place: look around and see what already exists. Embellish, alter, personalise, but the real world is a treasure trove of interesting words and concepts waiting to be plundered. Plus, your names are more likely to be believable if they at least have come sort of pattern taken from reality.

I just have one big and scary name left to think of and that’s the name of the novel itself. I have racked my brains and tugged at my hair, but nothing has yet presented itself to my that represents that story. I know it needs to be simple, snappy but still other-worldly, epic.

If you think of anything, let me know! If not, I will have to wait for the mists of destiny to part and reveal it for me.

…mists of Destiny, hmmm? Nah…too cheesy, even for me.

Watch this space!

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