A Rose By Any Other Name…

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

Yes, I’ve finally managed to codify and catalogue my thoughts on names. It is a question frequently raised of authors – how do you come up with your names? What makes a good name? As is usually the case with such amorphous subjects, there’s no tried-and-tested formula that will give you results every time. Learning to recognise a good name (or a bad name) is part of the artistry of writing. Due to length, I’ll have to deal with the specifics of titles for the next essay.

Over the years I’ve had to name all sorts of things – species, planets, nations, creatures, individuals, weapons, villages, guns, types of ammunition, troop types, daemons, battles, magic items, regiments, cities, gods. The list is huge when I think about it. Some I’m still proud of and some have hopefully submerged into obscurity.  What follows are a few things that I’ve learnt in that process.

A Nameless Thing

How important are names? Real life teaches us that names are important, even if we no longer believe that knowing some thing’s true name gives us power over it. Often we might say “He doesn’t look like a Derek,” or “She sounds more like a Hermione than a Tracy”. Names are a means by which we classify the world into understandable chunks. Our names shape how we see ourselves and how others see us. People change their names, or assume affectations of names, to alter their image or self-image. If names have such power over real people, then surely they also have importance to our fictional world.

On the flip side, as a writer it is possible to tie oneself in knots worrying whether a name is right or not. There seem to be pitfalls on all sides, filled with cliché and expectation. Sometimes a name is just a name and it is better to settle on one and move on. As in the real world, names are instruments of first impression or distant connection, to be supplanted when more detailed information becomes available.

There are so many names in the world, both real and fictional, they often seem to be a dwindling resource. Yet, experience teaches us two things. New names are devised for children every day, some of which go on to become popular and others which are best forgotten. Also, there’s nothing wrong with using a name that has been used before.

The study of names is a huge field in its own right (onomastics), and one that I’m not going to delve into with any expertise or depth. Different cultures at times have had many changing conventions for naming things. Rather than go into detail here, I think it better that I simply recommend that writers do some research and read around the subject. Even if you are inventing a purely fictional name for fantasy or sci-fi it is best that you have some form of underlying conventions of naming. These don’t have to be rigid rules, but as with fictional languages a degree of basis in reality increases verisimilitude. Try out different formats to get the feeling that you want. What looks to be an awkward name in one style may work better by reversing the elements or altering the spelling slightly.

Fact or fiction?

The most defining factor in a name is the setting. Leaving aside entirely created fantasy and science fiction settings for the moment, place and historical setting dictate the sorts of names that are available. A character in an Elizabethan story is unlikely to be called Kylie, anymore than a gritty suburban drama is going to feature a character called Hirkanin the Implacable…  Like archetypes, this is where names can become your allies rather than enemies. If your story is set on the rough streets of Compton, LA, characters such as Doug E. Jazz, G-Dawg and Jay-Gee create an image of your characters before a single word of description hits the page.

Imagine these characters for a moment: Sir Reginald Whitworth-Smythe; Lalita Lopez; Katya Otsova; Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram. I’m sure each of you had different images, but they would have shared some common themes of origin and character, perhaps even appearance. Except the last one. You might be forgiven for imagining all sorts of things based on the seemingly alien accumulation of sounds. Unless, of course, you have actually heard of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram, who was a real-life person in the Thai military.

That’s the problem when you start to stray very far from what is normal and everyday for your readers; the assumptions we make with names are based on familiarity, experience and stereotype. To continue the example, readers might have a better recognition if I had included the Field Marshal’s first name: Luang. Suddenly the syllables make more sense to us westerners because the first name resonates with Asiatic connotations. We might still find it odd, but Luang Plaek Pibulsonggram is less daunting.

Coming up with names in a real-world setting has its own set of issues, but these are increased when we start to introduce entirely fictional names into a sci-fi or fantasy setting. I’ll be calling these ‘fantasy names’ for simplicity but it applies equally to outlandish sci-fi names.

Although most of us are unaware of the origins of the majority of the names in usage in our societies today, familiarity gives us comfort. We might not really think of David or Paul or Simon as particularly special, but they trace their lineage back to the bible and once were chosen with very specific intent to represent characteristics or traits thought desirable. We might not be aware of the meanings, but we understand subconsciously that they are there.  When confronted with entirely alien names, we’re left hanging in the wind.

There are two main solutions to this issue. The first is to base your fantasy names on real ones and hijack the archetype implicit in the name. Arubh Al’jarek is not a proper Arabic name (as far as I’m aware – I think I just made it up but maybe it’s a subconscious memory!), but it brings a certain sense with it that readers can latch onto. Approximations of real names (or even real names from mythology or history) can be used as shorthand for a type of culture.

Asdrykasu, conversely, is just a collection of letters. On its own it gives us no sense of the person or his society. Or perhaps it does… Written words are representations of sounds and we associate certain sounds with other characteristics. Oouralambaru brings into mind a slow, bass resonance, while Kikkitiak is full of sharp, back-throat noises, like the sound of an insect or chittering small mammal. It’s not much to go on, but it may help to create a picture along with other description.

Synonymic names

Another staple of the fantasy and sci-fi genres is the portmanteau name – Lightbringer, Skywalker, Stormraven, and so forth. These are usually synonymic of the characteristics of the person, telling us something about them by association. Lily Leafgatherer is unlikely to be a frothing berserker maiden, any more than Voltan Deathsword is the nursery teacher! The same can be said of more usual names.  Damien Black has a sinister streak. Mary White is distinctly saintly.

The portmanteau synonymic name is something that comes up because of a fundamental difficulty in writing: language. Writing science fiction and fantasy is a constant wrestle between using the language of the reader (so, English, French, Spanish, etc.) and the languages of the characters. Strange words, exotic place names and odd character names add a frisson of the fantastic, yet in the world of our creation they might be commonplace.  In his own language Voltan Deathsword’s surname might be equivalent to Smith or Potter, but we deign to translate it for the reader.

In doing so, we are making a point that the meaning of the name is important. If I had an Iranian character called Safa Astarabadi I wouldn’t call him ‘Eternal Descended of a Family from Astarabad’ unless it was of significance. Sometimes authors take a middle road and translate indirectly, “He was Asdrykasu, which meant Deathsword in the tongue of the Aksu tribes.”

There isn’t any sure path to follow except consistency.  As the Fantasy Novelist’s Exam asks, ‘Do you see nothing wrong with having two characters from the same small isolated village being named “Tim Umber” and “Belthusalanthalus al’Grinsok”?’

Reading into a Name

Another issue with fantasy names is the distracting presence they have on a page. They tend to be long and draw attention to themselves in a way that Bob and John simply don’t. When I read, complex names tend to get relegated to ‘Bloke A’ and ‘Soldier B’ as I read, skipping over the names after the first few occurrences. Now and then, I find myself stuck as I try to mentally pronounce a name and the flow of the sentence and lose the pacing of the writing. Exceptional names act as roadblocks to reading.

I have come to the conclusion that as a writer I am already masquerading the fallacy of translation, so I might as well apply that to names. I usually make the names as clear and pronouncable as possible, acknowledging to myself that the language and written text of the ‘original’ name I am presenting is probably far from the English I am using. You wouldn’t necessarily break into Arabic scrip or Kanji in the middle of the sentence, so why do the same with fantasy names? So, while Alhsgydg might be a cool-looking alien name, Alhasgydig is a phonetic, anglicised version that causes less problems to the reader.

Quick-fire Round

Real people may have several forms of name, depending on who is addressing them. Your protagonist may be Daniel to his mother, Dan to his workmates and Danny to those who have known him since childhood. Some might even call him by a nickname. However your characters refer to him, as narrator you should pick one and stick with it where possible.

An apostrophe represents a glottal stop. Learn where it should go in a word if you want to use one. Yes, I have sinned in this respect in the past (and may unwittingly do so again in the future) and I offer penance.

Collect names. If you see an interesting name, make a note of it somewhere as it may be of use later. I note down footballers names, interesting letter combinations or car number plates, names that crop up in news articles or on T.V. Some can be used unchanged; some give a foundation for a name.

Use Google to check the names of your main characters, invented creatures and places. If you want to create something unique, it’s best to check that it actually is.

A quick way of inspiring a strange name is the random keyboard tap. Just hit a few letters and see what you get: Iadkuy; Enaod; Czajaos… It’s normally a good idea to put in an extra vowel or two to aid pronuniciation.

Be consistent with name spellings so that if you change it a simple find-and-replace should pick them up.

Edit carefully if you have changed a name, especially if the change is only a letter or two. When reading we tend to block words into a single element once familiar and a mis-spelt name further in the piece can be overlooked. If you do find a mis-spelling, find-and-replace through the whole document as it is possible that you may have used the same mis-spelling in other places.

The following is an answer I posted to a question of titles, but applies equally to names.

I have two pieces of advice on naming things. Firstly, don’t put in a placeholder name that is anything like a plausible title. Growing familiarity and continuous use will mean that the name gets established in your thinking and makes it harder to come up with genuine alternatives. So, if you don’t have a killer title straight away, call it Article Number 6, or Science Fiction Story about a Space Goat. Beware the memes we create for ourselves.

 [[[The easily offended should skip to the next paragraph]]]

Amongst my colleagues this is affectionately known as the ‘pigwank’ principle, because no one in their right mind is going to think the real name or title is ‘pigwank’ and it’s not going to get published or promoted as such by accident!

[[[The prudish can continue reading from here 😉 ]]]

Secondly, and somewhat conversely, most titles seem awkward at first. They do need to be run around the block a little bit to settle in. If you still don’t like it after a few days, time to come up with something else (and go back to calling it Article on Cat Habits #3).

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. It’s also worth noting that very, very simple names are never forgotten or skimmed over. It’s easy to believe that a fantasy world will have a Dii or a Jon, and no one will question it. And once the character is established, even mentioning that Dii’s full name is Diishawnydellissa probably won’t trip people up as long as you don’t start using all seventeen letters regularly.

    Gav – That’s a good point. It is rare that we use the full name of people with long names, unless they specifically like it that way. It is certainly the tendency in the English-speaking world to shorten names to the shortest single syllable possible, even if it’s only a contraction from David to Dave, or even Jim from James. In presentation you can also reverse the introduction of the name. The character might be first mentioned as Diishawnydellissa and then a character or the narrator refers to the person as Dii soon after.

    On a separate, but related note, I always figured that fantasy characters weren’t speaking English anyway, so everything that comes out of their mouths are translations anyway. What I have a hard time with are things like timing in a culture where time is a more vague. Perhaps sometime you can do a post on a tasteful way to carry over time, measurement, and the like.

    Ooh, that’s a topic-and-a-half. It’s something I’ve run into quite a bit in some of my recent projects, so a public airing of my own turbulent thoughts might be therapeutic 🙂


  2. what a comprehensive and thoroughly engaging essay. thanks for this!


  3. I would like to ask about the name “Zaul” (in the “Angels of Darkness”) and the behavior of the space marine wearing it.
    Is it by accident that space marine named “Zaul” displays more fervour than other battle-brothers (after learning about the Lutherites’ existence)? I mean, is the similarity of “Zaul” and “Saul” accident (or not)?
    Thank you.


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