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Tyrannohotep

The trouble with fantasy names

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I would be shocked if nobody ever found themselves challenged to pick names for the places and people in their fantasy worlds. There is one consideration about this subject that has been bugging me for some time, and I think it has potential to complicate the process even more.

We all know names have the power to conjure mental images of our characters, but it is not only because they might have certain "tones" evocative of their personality. They can also describe what kind of place that character comes from. Let me list some names below.

  • Caeledar
  • Ahmuhotepet
  • Nyenziwe
  • Zul'Potec
  • Ali Ibn Sambahr

Now match the above to the image they suggest most for you.

  • A bronze-skinned scholar with an aquiline nose and a thick black beard, dressed in a robe and turban. He hails from a prosperous city adjoining an oasis in the desert.
  • A priestly king with swathes of body paint applied over his light coppery complexion, straight black hair framing a face with prominent cheekbones, and a headdress streaming with jade-green quetzal plumes in addition to his red cotton breechcloth. His people build cities of terraced pyramids in the rainforest.
  • A burly ginger-maned warrior in plaid trousers, with blue tattoos swirling over his snow-pale thews, and a very big sword under his baldric. Deciduous forests grow dense around the hill-fort where his people like to swill mead, brawl with one another, and play the bagpipes.
  • A svelte mahogany-brown princess clad in white linen, her neck and limbs ringed with jewelry of gold and lapis-lazuli, and gold ringlets around her braided black hair. Her civilization is also situated in a desert environment, albeit situated alongside a river with fertile floodplains supporting a variety of wildlife like hippopotamus, antelopes, and crocodiles. She's looking forward to the day when she gets to commission a big limestone tomb for her own burial.
  • A tall and lithe, ebony-dark warrior in a red cotton tunic, with copper ornaments and feline fangs hanging around her neck. Her people live in villages of earthen rondavels within a savanna, and she and her warriors will defend them with iron spears and ovular hide shields.

It shouldn't be too hard, right? Yet I made up all those names on the fly for this OP. They're not taken from real cultures, but rather are composed of sounds that evoke certain cultures when you read them. But, as you can probably tell from the descriptions above, those images tend to have stereotypical qualities that may not flatter those from the cultures they're based on. Some might think these fictitious names are caricaturing their real languages.

It's true that we're working with fantasy worlds, where the cultures don't have to be transplanted copies of real ones. However, even cultures that are fictitious and don't draw exclusive influence from one real-world culture or region can still need names that help "set the scene". You may have a scorching desert country that isn't transplanted from Northeast Africa, Arabia, or even the American Southwest, but would you be cool applying a name like "Chang Li" or "Archebald Shillington" to any of its native inhabitants? Those might be as undesirable as using the stereotypical-sounding made-up names above, but for different reasons.

The other alternative is to use actual names or vocabulary from the cultures you're drawing influence from with regards to your fantasy setting. This is, in fact, the approach I prefer to take. It does mean, however, that I have to put more effort into making my fantasy cultures resemble their real-world counterparts. Sometimes that's what I want, but it can present a problem if I want to be more inventive with my world.

What are ways you can devise fantasy names that are at once evocative of the setting without sounding stereotypical or caricatured?

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Well, I think if you're wanting to avoid closely resembling or eliciting (or potentially caricaturing) a real world culture, a good way is to play alphabet soup.  By that, I mean, make a sound "ah," "oh," etc.  Follow it with another sound.  Continue playing with the sounds (and how you might spell them) until you get something you like.  Caveat to this, be careful you don't accidentally "invent" a real name.  I did that.  Jallil Oura, Jalil being Muslim and meaning exalted or magnificent, and Oura being Japanese and meaning a whole host of different things depending on the kanji used to spell it.  On the other hand, almost no one outside of those two cultures is likely to identify either name without a google search, and no one ever gave me trouble over the name being stolen or racist or anything like that.

Another trick I use is to echo naming conventions but change the element to a different set of letters.  For example, a German naming convention is Von, meaning son of insert-family-name-or father's-name.  This can potentially make the name echo the culture of the convention you're working off of, but not necessarily.

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On 8/20/2019 at 7:39 PM, Tyrannohotep said:

The other alternative is to use actual names or vocabulary from the cultures you're drawing influence from with regards to your fantasy setting. This is, in fact, the approach I prefer to take. It does mean, however, that I have to put more effort into making my fantasy cultures resemble their real-world counterparts. Sometimes that's what I want, but it can present a problem if I want to be more inventive with my world.

That's also the approach I tend to use - I pick a language or culture, browse lists of typical names and write down those that I like to create a smaller list of my favorites. When I name characters, I go to that list and pick a name that seems to fit the character.

I'm curious why you think that approach makes it neccessary to put more effort into researching the actual culture you're drawing inspiration from - after all, there are tons of fantasy books and movies that use old English or Irish names and don't give a damn about their medieval-ish fantasy world actually resembling what history books say.

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10 hours ago, Tangwystle said:

For example, a German naming convention is Von, meaning son of insert-family-name-or father's-name. 

That is the meaning of the scandinavian suffixes -son and -dottir.
The German "von" (it's not capitalized) was used to indicate the country estate or regional provenance of a person, it doesn't mean "son of X", it's literally a geographic "from" - like "John from London".

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3 hours ago, Manu said:

I'm curious why you think that approach makes it neccessary to put more effort into researching the actual culture you're drawing inspiration from - after all, there are tons of fantasy books and movies that use old English or Irish names and don't give a damn about their medieval-ish fantasy world actually resembling what history books say.

That is a good point you raise there. I simply felt that using authentic names went hand in hand with keeping your constructed culture closer to the real-world one. But fair enough, they don't always have to go together.

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I'mma be the odd man out and say I'm all about not using real life names unless my piece is firmly grounded in history and/or modern day. This is another world, not ours, and if I run across a character named "Steve" as the reader, I will be supremely unimpressed. The way I see it, they should have different names, because they have entirely different histories from ours, with different important names (heroes, kings, gods), and different languages.

It doesn't mean names don't have rules, though, and they change for me from world to world.

I usually start most of my worlds with a little bit of basic language building. This is easy, just reduce your alphabet by a few letters, decide on a few common word patterns in the spelling (ou ie, gh, jh, th, da, etc.), and boom, you have a language that looks just foreign enough with very little effort. Cribbing from existing languages is fine. Then I'll make a few simple words like "village," "town," "city," "fortress," "ocean," "desert"...you get the idea. Then I'll add by need--if I want to call a place "The Dark Fortress" (fortress = dois), I'll make a word for "dark" (niann). It could be Dois Niann or Niann Dois or Doinias, whatever combination best serves my needs. But if every place that has a fortress has a "doi" somewhere in the name, readers will pick up on that pattern.

Characters are much the same. I'll pick out a name meaning (magical flower) and I'll make just the words I need for that name. They'll become cannon in the language, but from there I'll also convert them. I'll pick out the words (oursu = magic, uimi = flower), then squish them together in various ways (oursuimi, suimi, uimoursu, uimirsu, usuimi) until I come up with something pleasing to the eye and that feels like the character (Usuimi).

When I don't have a language (and often when I do), I'll make up some rules.

The easiest is how a name ends. In Spanish, for example, a female name might end in "A" (Roberta) while a male one will end in "O" (Roberto). With this in mind I'll pick a handful of suffixes for either gender, then stick to them. Another, as someone else said, is to do the "son of/daughter of" modifier, and you can pick whatever modifier you want. I came up with names like:

  • Chymu ga Momoino – Chy
  • Sakinsu ga Payosu – Saki
  • Maigi ga Suyau – Mai
  • Ttwuiw un Ttongeun – Ttwui
  • Motaim un Waimot – Mot
  • Hyutus un Koluss – Hyu

There's a lot of rules with these names. First, female names end in vowels, male in consonants, always. The only exception is nicknames, which can end any way whatsoever for any gender. Then there's the way people are addressed. To strangers you are always your last name, so if you were looking at the first name on the list, a stranger would call her "ga Momoino" or, more literally, "daughter of Momoino" out of respect (women are traced through mothers, males through fathers). More informal situations--family get-togethers that include distant relatives, work environments where people have known each other for years, etc.; anything that is closer than acquaintance but not close enough to be a personal relationship--can be called by first name; so to those people she would be "Chymu." To those closest to her--deep friendships, closest family like parents, her lovers, etc.--she would be "Chy."

Any use of names in this book will tell a reader instantly how close two characters are as well as hinting at social structures and social mores. Readers will also be able to peg rude or rebellious characters very quickly, as they'll flaunt and break these rules.

I've also used modifiers to denote castes. Or "castes," since it denoted a complicated mix of wealth, status, and job. The names would look something like this: "Il-Aizahs." The dash was put in for the reader, to let them know it's safe to ignore the first part of the name and concentrate on the suffix. With the dash it looks like two names conjoined instead of a single one with an all too common prefix. In this case, "Il-" denotes a soldier status, and it's one of the few prefixes that can be gained and lost in a lifetime. "Aj-" is only given to kings, "Eni-" is food based (farmers, grocers, bakers, and the like), merchants can be "Ira-" or "Ir-," "Ir-" must be bestowed and denotes the merchant is trustworthy, craftsmen are "Ani-," and so on.

I love leaving nifty breadcrumbs for astute readers to follow, and breaking the patterns sometimes to denote something special or have an reader question why. Even those who don't will generally pick up on some basic rules unconsciously, and those rules will "ring true" for them, making the world seem more real and complex.

Here I have months of the year:

  • Fukaas
  • Uzuaas
  • Uaxiaas
  • Sirikaas
  • Niaas
  • Riaraas
  • Sekikaas
  • Vexikekaas
  • Uiuaas
  • Xaaraas
  • Ihoaas
  • Sasaas
  • Zenisaas
  • Iu

Here I have clan names:

  • Hohniinas Ajahlzi
  • Vlexiinas Ajahlzi
  • Rahliinas Ajahlzi
  • Tixaliinas Ajahlzi
  • Yoltiinas Ajahlzi
  • Isliinas Ajahlzi
  • Xoziinas Ajahlzi

And here I have deity names:

  • Arturus
  • Malixa
  • Ixiana
  • Enkin
  • Aloxin
  • Vilja
  • Ziriukixian

See the patterns? Note the exceptions?

I also have a story in which the name "Alise" is common; so much so that when my MC has a glamour cast on her to disguise her as another woman (against her will), no one thinks it's unusual she also already shares a name with the woman she's replacing. I even put in points in the book where she will turn in a village when her name is called only to see a child running home or a shopkeeper respond. In that world the name "Alise" is as common as "Sarah" is here. This requires some literary juggling (Alise-goose-girl or Alise-my-wife depending on who is being referred to in scenes where the other MC must talk of both), but it was a really fun challenge. And the common name is also key to her character, that the MC is ordinary, a nobody, not even deserving of a unique name.

So...yeah, I have a lot of fun with character names I guess is what I'm saying. 🙂

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I follow something similar to katfireblade. The rules are different for each world I create. For example, in a current WIP, you can trace the same name through the different nations/cultures through its different spellings. Taliah means lake daughter (tal is lake) the iah ending is girl offspring in the root language of some cultures. The next culture over on the map, however, would drop the h. In a more distant culture the name might look entirely different but have a similar sound, or it might look similar but sound different.

The goal is to have a logic behind the conventions and to be consistent.

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On 8/22/2019 at 3:37 PM, Manu said:

That is the meaning of the scandinavian suffixes -son and -dottir.
The German "von" (it's not capitalized) was used to indicate the country estate or regional provenance of a person, it doesn't mean "son of X", it's literally a geographic "from" - like "John from London".

My mistake.  You're absolutely right.  Don't know how I managed to mix that up.

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