Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Fantastic naming cliches and how to avoid them

Posted by: Angela Korra'ti
With apologies to J.K. Rowling. ;)

Here’s a proposed topic that came at me when I put out a call about what to post about for my turn on the blog today: how do you make names in fantasy novels not sound silly?

And, as a writer of epic fantasy and urban fantasy, this question is highly relevant to my interests. So let me talk a bit about what I try to do when I come up with names. (As always with writing advice, though, this is what’s worked for me so far, and it may or may not work for you.)


Apostrophes in names are of course a huge fantasy cliche. I am not immune to them. If you’ve read Faerie Blood and/or Bone Walker, you’ll probably have observed that my Sidhe do have apostrophes in their surnames. The three examples I have so far on record are Elessir a’Natharion, Melisanda ana’Sharran, and my heroine Kendis’s mother, Elanna ana’Kirlath.

In my defense, I will note that my intention here was to have the “a” and “ana” prefixes function similarly to “O” and “Mac” in Irish and Scottish names—i.e., they’re designators for what family or House the Sidhe in question belongs to. “A” as a prefix is for males, “ana” is for females. The apostrophes are silent, and are indicators that the “ana” and “a” prefixes are meant to be considered as a single unit with the House names. This is similar to my understanding of how Irish names evolved in real life.

And because I do in fact have a point to those apostrophes, I embrace using them. ;D

I do not have apostrophes on the names of elves in my Rebels of Adalonia trilogy, but this is because my editor (justifiably) intercepted them before they made it into the final draft of Valor of the Healer. I was okay with that for two reasons: one, apostrophes are more cliched in epic fantasy than they are in urban, at least in my personal experience, and two, I’ve already got them in one series and it’s good to avoid repeating myself.

Eight million diacritics all over your names

Anybody who grew up reading Tolkien like I did, and who then turned to writing fantasy, will understand this one: the urge to slap diacritics all over your names to emphasize how they aren’t English.

Boy howdy am I not immune to this one. But again, I tried to dial it down to moderate levels when making up my language for my elves in the Rebels of Adalonia books. The only accent I’ve deployed in my Elvish language in that trilogy is a grave, and the intention for those is to serve as indicators that any vowel with one is in fact supposed to be sounded in speech. I generally only drop them on second vowels in a word—there are no such things as dipthongs in my Elvish—or on vowels at the end of words that follow consonants.

As with apostrophes, I do try to employ at least some form of basic linguistic consistency here. I am so very much not an actual linguist, but I’m enough of a language nerd to try to pay at least a little attention here and to balance out “it just looks cool” with “but let’s give it an actual purpose in the language, mmkay?”

Long multi-syllabic names

Yep, this is another one I’m not entirely immune to. Amelialoren, Queen of the Seelie Court, and Luciriel, Queen of the Unseelie Court, I am looking straight at you.

Yet again, though, this is one I try to keep down to a reasonable moderate level. Complex names like that are ones I usually drop only on major power figures—like, say, the Queens of the Courts. My Seelie warrior Melisanda is about the only other notable exception to this, since her name has four syllables. But she’s also directly named for a character I used to see played on Two Moons MUSH.

(Fun side trivia fact: I have named multiple characters after people I used to play with on various MUSHes!)

Mostly, though, I try to keep names down to two or three syllables at most. And in the Rebels of Adalonia books in particular, this rule is in play. Most of the elves in that story have two or three syllables in their names, and the human characters likewise.

Among the humans in particular, I have a mix of names that are in use in real life (e.g., Julian) and names that clearly aren’t (e.g., Kestar). But there’s a linguistic rule here, too. Names with obvious real life analogs are intended to be derived from one language, while names that are clearly made up are derived from another. (Specifically, for names derived from the Adalonian language, I used either names that appear in real life, or else grabbed names from Irish or Scots sources, sometimes anglicizing the spelling. E.g., turning Séamus into Shaymis. Names derived from the language of the people of Nirrivy were based on Norwegian sources.)

In general

I do try to keep my names short and punchy: Kendis, Faanshi, Kestar, Julian, Jude, etc. It fits my writing style, and I hope that it makes life a little easier for my readers. As you’ve probably seen, I do like to indulge myself with classic naming cliches, and I cheerfully blame a lot of that on Tolkien! But I do also try to rein it in and use just enough to add a little bit of flair to my naming schemes without going overboard.

(‘Cause I do love me some Tolkien, but wow, is it hard to slog through any of his works that use a lot of Quenya names. Like most of The Silmarillion!)

So talk to me, fellow writers and readers: what are your favorite fantasy naming cliches? Which ones have a way of showing up in your writing?

Angela writes as both Angela Highland and Angela Korra'ti, but either way, you can find out all about her books at angelahighland.com. Come geek out with her about languages on her site, on Facebook, or on Twitter!

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