I’ll Just Call Everyone “Bob”

Even when they’re not updating with new posts, Making Light’s particles are bottled awesome.

Today brings the shiny from Jo Walton, on creating fantasy names and words.

So much of my writing begins with me agonizing over names. I’ve managed to get over the need to choose a title before I can start – several of my works-in-progress are saved as something that lets me recognize what is within the file – “Running,” “Karris,” “Vamp Story,” (which, by the way, isn’t about vampires at all, since within three pages it had changed into something else entirely. But if I changed the title, I’d have no idea what was in there.) That used to cripple me, though, this feeling that I had to have a great title before I could do anything else.

I grew out of that.

Naming characters is a completely different matter. The names you give them sticks with them through the whole of the tale. They don’t always have to be symbolic, but they do have to sound right. It’s hard enough choosing names for stories set in our own reality (or one very close to our reality). Now imagine finding them for a world where the native tongue isn’t any language that’s ever been spoken on Earth.

There’s a fine line you have to walk in making up names and places and words – you can’t just throw a bunch of Scrabble tiles into a bag, draw out five or six, and write down whatever comes out.

Well, you can, but what you end up with is going to be inconsistent and most likely hard to pronounce. Readers are going to pick up on those inconsistencies, whether they can point right at it and say, “That name doesn’t follow the pattern for that fictional country,” or they just think it sounds off, they’re going to know.

Also, some names are simply more aurally pleasing than others. I once read an article somewhere (which I’ll go searching for) talking about the patterns of syllables in first and last names, and how people hear them, the feelings they invoke before you even know anything about the subject – this person is smart, this person is strong, I wouldn’t let this person within 500 yards of my house.

There’s a young adult series that’s done pretty well from the day it came out, called Cirque du Freak. Boys love it – it’s gory, it’s scary, it’s fun. I’ve met the author; he’s enthusiastic and funny and loves what he does. I read the first few titles, and one thing that yanked me out of the story right from the start were the names. The main character becomes a half-vampire. His sire’s name is Larten Crepsley.

Larten Crepsley.

I still don’t know what it was about that name that makes me cringe. The character himself has an interesting backstory; I actually enjoyed the scenes that featured him. But that name… There are more like it throughout the series – Harkat Mulds is another that comes to mind – and I wonder how Shan went about christening his characters.

I’m curious to see if those names strike any of you as a bit off or if anyone wants to volunteer examples of their own. These seem to me like syllables thrown together haphazardly. They don’t roll off the tongue very well.

I like to think I’ve done all right with names in things I’ve written. Most of my stuff is set in either present-day or near-future Earth, so I can get away without making up new names. There is one project I keep drifting back to, though, where I have a ton of world-building to do. I think Ms. Walton’s formula might come in handy.

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3 Responses to I’ll Just Call Everyone “Bob”

  1. Grizz says:

    Naming my characters has always been one of my major hardships in writing. I’ve tried on occasion to do a placeholder name, but it just doesn’t -work- for a lot of things I’ve tried to do.

    Even in WoW I usually just spam the random name generator until I find something passable, then tweak it with a few letters of my own. I’ve tried not to do that for some of the RP I’m working on right now though, so coming up with the proper names is… challenging.

    Thanks for the awesome link!

  2. Foxfire says:

    Crepsley? Yeah, that’s all kinds of obnoxious in a word. My brain immediately goes to “creepy” and “crepe” in the sense of “thin flappy cloth that’s used in mourning clothes and whose texture totally creeps me out”. So, um, nope.

    I tend to go the other way with writing, though. Sometimes I have characters pop up with their names already attached, and when that happens, I sit up, pay attention, and start writing. When I have time. *slaps down Spinter, Diora and Dayan, who arrived in my head uninvited and refuse to leave*

  3. falconesse says:

    I’ve had a few of those. One of my on-again-off-again projects came into my head as this steampunk sort of thing in the middle of a panel on Death as a character at WorldCon 2004. (Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and several other authors who have personified Death were the speakers.) The conversation veered off into out-of-body experiences, because one of the panelists didn’t quite get the gist of the topic, and all of a sudden I found myself no longer taking notes on what they were saying, but instead doing a bit of worldbuilding.

    I started writing it for Nano 2004, but in the two months between WorldCon and Nano, it had gone from steampunk to fantasy. The only things that really stayed the same were three of the characters’ names: Karris, Deerja and Hang.

    I need to go back and look at that again. I still like the idea behind it, but I think I started it at the wrong point in the story.

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