A Character By Any Other Name

Last time we talked about the complications of naming babies.  Of course, parents have only a few children.  But writers have to name a lot of characters.  Coming up with the right names is tricky; some writers are better at it than others.  Let’s look at how they meet the challenge.

The Familiar

If you’re writing a contemporary story, you’re in much the same position as a proud parent—except that you know how the person turns out, and you can pick a name that carries the implications you want for the character.  Dickens can name one pleasant pair the Cheeryble Brothers and a less prepossessing soul Scrooge to underline their personalities, in case the reader needs to be hit over the head with a sledgehammer to get the point.  Not all authors have to be quite so explicit about it.

As we noted, there are plenty of books and pamphlets to suggest character names, as well as sites like Behind the Names, BabyNameWizard, or Nameberry.  The pamphlets have become a bit more international over the years:  today’s versions contain names from more countries and languages than they used to.  This can help us avoid what you might call “WASP Name Syndrome,” in which all the names tend to be blandly Anglo-Saxon.

Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel

Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel

Consider, for example, early super-heroes, who tended to have white-bread names like Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Bruce Wayne, Barry Allen—not to mention the compulsively alliterative Marvel characters like Reed Richards, Peter Parker, Sue Storm, Bruce Banner…  We see at least a little more cultural variety these days, even if it’s still hard to shake the alliteration, as with the current Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan.

We’re still in pretty familiar territory when we visit the realm of the historic, or faux-historic—legendary figures living in real or imagined ancient times.  In the Arthurian tales we get ordinary-sounding names like, well, Arthur, as well as less common names (at least at this point in history) like Lancelot, Galahad, Tristan and Isolde, which may at least be familiar through repetition.  An author who wants to be (perhaps) historically more accurate as well as exotic can go for Celtic-style spellings:  Bedwyr instead of Bedivere, for example.  I’ve seen such imaginative renditions of “Guinevere” that you can get halfway through the book before you realize who the author is talking about.  (“Gwenhwyfar,” anyone?)

The Semi-Fantastic

We can do the same thing in F&SF—name our hero Luke, our wizard Ben, pedestrian names like that.  We may want the effect of the plain, traditional name for a particular character—for example, to suggest homeliness or familiarity.  (“His real name is Obi-Wan, but I know him as Ben.”)  This is fine if the story is set, say, twenty years from now, when you’d expect names to be relatively unchanged.  But it’s harder to justify—to make believable—if we’re thousands of years in the future, or in a completely separate alternate world, as with much heroic fantasy.

Note this can also be true in SF:  Star Wars looks futuristic, but we’re clearly asked to dissociate ourselves from any specific connection to the present when we’re told, “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away…”  The curious reader is likely to wonder, how did these people happen to come up with exactly the same names we use, even without any common (recent) history or heritage?

Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, coverIn Zenna Henderson’s stories of The People, refugees from another planet come to Earth and struggle to fit in.  The stories are excellent, but the names sometimes give me pause.  In a story set on the home planet, before they’ve had any contact with Earth, the characters have names such as David, Eve, and Timmy—as well as the less familiar Lytha and ‘Chell (Michelle?).  Why so similar to common Terrestrial names?

Or take the hobbits.  Alongside Sam, Bob, and Rosie we have characters like Frodo, Bilbo, Meriadoc and Pippin.  Tolkien, the master linguist, can explain this—exhaustively (see Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings).  From a narrative point of view, the name-mixture gives us a sense of earthy rustic culture, but also of something a little different from Merrie Olde England.  Tolkien succeeds by being both quaint and quirky.

I’m less sympathetic to George R.R. Martin, who seems determined to give his characters in A Song of Ice and Fire names that are mostly familiar, but misspelled.  If we’re going to have people named Eddard, Catelyn, and Rickard, why not just call them Edward, Cathleen, and Richard—or are we expected to believe that languages in Westeros evolved in almost exact parallel to ours, but not quite?  (I have the same problem with the pseudo-Latin spells in Harry Potter—if you’re going to use Latin, just do it, don’t fake it—though I recently read an article by someone who’s examined Rowling’s quasi-Latin more closely than I and is more forgiving.)

Inventing Fantasy Names

If we’re going for traditional semi-medieval high fantasy, we may want names that are somewhat familiar, but have an antique ring to them.  How do I come up with a fitting title for the mighty barbarian I just rolled up for Dungeons and Dragons?  There are a number of tried-and-true approaches.  As it turns out, TV Tropes has a gallery of naming tropes that cover much of the territory (there’s a list-of-lists at Naming Conventions).

A descriptive name picks out some distinguishing feature:  Erik the Red, Catherine the Great.  Or Charles the Bald, or Pepin the Short, if I’m aiming for humorous or mundane rather than grand and dramatic.  If we don’t like “the,” we can fix on a name like Blackbeard.  Or Bluebeard.  (TV Tropes summarizes the pattern as Captain Colorbeard.)

Naming someone by place of origin (especially in place of a last name) also has a healthy yeomanlike sound to it.  I fondly recall a sturdy D&D character I named John of Redcliff.  A lot of ordinary last names, like Lake or Hill or Rivers, probably started out that way.  If the background allows for it, we can vary the effect by using French (de) or German (von) or other languages’ equivalents.

Occupations also gave us a lot of familiar last names.  “William the Farmer” (to distinguish him from the three other Williams in the village) easily becomes “William Farmer.”  Some of these are less obvious than others:  we may not recall that “sawyer” is what you call someone who wields a saw.

Names that indicate one’s parents—patronymics and matronymics—occur in many languages.  The English have their Josephsons and Richardsons, the Russians their Petrovs and Ivanovnas.

Random alphabet diceScorning these expedients, we can also strike off into the unknown by inventing a name purely from scratch, just for its sound.  This can produce semi-random results—but not entirely random, since speakers of a given language will tend toward combinations of letters and sounds that “make sense” in their language.  TV Tropes’ Law of Alien Names makes some interesting observations about how writers in different genres often approach name generation.

A doctor friend of mine, feeling he wasn’t up to the task of coining a lot of names, used a novel expedient in his D&D campaign:  he used the names of drugs.  This strategy works surprisingly well as long as you stick to obscure pharmaceuticals, which often seem to have been named by plucking letters out of the air (“erenumab”) or by phonetically respelling a chemical term (“Sudafed”).  On the other hand, a fierce warrior character named “Xanax” is going to create some cognitive dissonance for those who know the term in question.

A Variety of Effects

Different writers take different approaches to naming, which contribute to the distinctiveness of their worlds.

At the extreme end of systematic invention stands Tolkien, who once said that he invented his stories and realms only as a place to put his invented languages.  His names add noticeably to the integrity of his imagined world; they hold together so well because they really were derived from a number of separate, fully-developed languages.  We have a pretty good idea whether a name is hobbitish, elven, or dwarven from the sound alone.

Llana of Gathol, coverOr take Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom (Mars) stories.  Martian heroes and heroines (especially the heroines) tend to have relatively graceful names:  Dejah Thoris, Gahan of Gathol (a place-reference name), Carthoris, Llana.  Male supporting characters and savage green Martians are tougher-sounding:  Tars Tarkas, Mors Kajak, Kantos Kan, Xodar.  Villains’ names are still less graceful:  Phor Tak, Tul Axtar, Luud, U-Dor.  There’s no clear linguistic background for the names, but there’s enough commonality to give us a sense that Barsoomian nomenclature does hold together on a cultural basis.

Telzey Amberdon, book coverThe far future of SF writer James Schmitz yields a completely different style of naming.  Rather than being mellifluously Elvish, like Galadriel or Aragorn, or barbarically guttural, like Tars Tarkas, Schmitz’s names strike me as quintessentially American:  with a contemporary English sound and a sort of casual feel—yet unfamiliar enough to remind us we’re not in Kansas any more.  Recurring character Telzey Amberdon is a good example.  “Telzey,” with the diminutive –ey ending, sounds like a nickname somebody today might bear, but as far as I know, no one actually does.

This laid-back style is characteristic of Schmitz’s Federation of the Hub.  The names have a familiar contemporary sound, but they aren’t actually familiar.  The first names also tend to give few gender clues—which might be related to the fact that Schmitz stories often featured strong female leads.  Nile Etland and Heslet Quillan, along with the single-named Captain Pausert and Goth of The Witches of Karres or Iliff and Pagadan of Agent of Vega, all sound like people we might run into on any street—until we bypass the familiarity of sound and realize we’ve never heard these names before.  The names give Schmitz’s stories a unique feel.

Consistency

We can see how the names help establish the mood and ambiance of a story.  It says something about The Lord of the Rings that it contains both Gandalf the Grey and Freddy Bolger.  As with other aspects of worldbuilding, the names contribute to the “willing suspension of disbelief” when they help us feel the believable solidity of a consistent background—even if it’s a consistency that includes species or cultural variation.

TV Tropes lists a number of ways anomalies can crop up.  There’s “Aerith and Bob,” where familiar conventional names are mixed in unaccountably with unusual ones.  If a particular character’s name is unlike any of the others, we have “Odd Name Out.”  Using a mix of Earthly languages as sources for names gives us “Melting-Pot Nomenclature”—which may be justified if we envision a future in which today’s nations and ethnic groups have intermixed, as in H. Beam Piper’s future history.

The most thoroughgoing way of establishing a solid background for your names is Tolkien’s:  invent your own languages.  But few of us have the time, patience and talent for that kind of detail.  In practice, we don’t need to go that far.  It’s possible to do the same thing on a small scale by starting from the grass roots:  come up with an interesting name or two and decide to emphasize certain sounds or forms for that language’s words, inventing the rules and common elements (like “de” or “von”) as we go along.

However writers may go about the business of naming, we can appreciate the distinctive flavor given to their stories by how they choose names for their “children”—and if we’re so inclined, we can try out that creative wordplay for ourselves.

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The Naming of Names

I love names.  Words of all sorts, but especially names; people’s names, as well as names of places and things.  Even with ordinary first names, one may always ask “Why did the parents pick that name for that child?”—whether one asks with a note of puzzlement, admiration, or horror.  But fantasy and science fiction provide wider scope for inquiry, because so many of the names in those stories are made up by the authors, rather than picked from the usual stash of baby names.

First, though, let’s look at the mundane questions faced by parents.

Name That Baby

Ariella baby name decorative blockA year ago, when my daughter was expecting her first child, she canvassed family members for name suggestions.  I was happy to comply.  Ecstatic, in fact.  I pored through a number of baby name booklets and sources, which I keep for reference in inventing fictional characters, and (naturally) made a list.

As I was putting the list together, I realized I was subliminally applying a whole set of criteria for evaluating possible candidates.  When I tried to tease out what kinds of considerations I had in mind, I came up with this set.

(1)  First and last names.  First of all, the first and last name have to go together.  Bob Levey, a Washington Post columnist, used to collect “Perfect Fit Last Names” (PFLN).  Sometimes these were simply last names that turned out to be appropriate for someone’s occupation; I once had a swimming teacher named Mr. Drown.  A Levey collection from 2000 mentions a funeral home director named Graves, a midwife named Borner, and horseback riding instructors named Sadler, Mount, and Paddock.  But sometimes it’s the coordination of first and last names that’s especially apt.  The same article, for example, cites an Ivy Plant.  The first question for parents is, do you want to saddle your child with a name that will always invite snickers?

A subtler point is whether first and last names sound good together.  For example, when my children were born, I decided that names ending in an “-el” sound would elide too smoothly into the first syllable of “Ellrod.”  That knocked out a lot of girls’ names with forms like Michelle or Annabelle.  On the plus side, it also removed the temptation to indulge in a Tolkien name like “Galadriel Ellrod.”  (More on that below.)

(2)  Too common.  You may not want a name that’s too common.  Both my children shared first names with other kids in their grade-school classes—in one case, a first and middle name.  If you’re curious what names have been most used in recent years, you can consult a Web site like Behind the Name, which also provides great etymologies.

Beren, by Elena Kukanova

Beren (sketch by Elena Kukanova)

(3)  Too weird.  At the same time, you don’t necessarily want a name that’s too exotic.  No matter how geeky you (or your kids) may be, it’s going to be tough going through life named “Aragorn Ellrod” or “Frodo Ellrod.”  (Not to mention “Kal-El Ellrod,” which fails on multiple counts.)  I almost succumbed to the Tolkien temptation when I considered the name “Beren,” a hero from the Silmarillion.  It sounds almost normal; and maybe I could bury it as a middle name.  I started trying out the name “Christopher Beren” on people, but I stopped when someone asked:  “You mean, like the Baron of so-and-so?”  Uh-oh.  The poor kid would never get his middle name spelled right, ever.

Fashion matters, too.  Names go in and out of style.  It sometimes seems that about twenty percent of the heroines in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century novels were named “Fanny.”  But it’s hard to imagine giving a child that name today.  (Behind the Names confirms my gut reaction, showing the statistical incidence of “Fanny” dropping off the chart after about 1940 in the U.S.)

(4)  Misspelled or mispronounced.  A name that will always be misspelled or mispronounced is going to be a burden for the child.  In this category we have the innovative spellings one sometimes see for commonplace names.  “Megan,” for example, is pretty common nowadays (though there were no Megans around when I was growing up).  But a girl named “Megyn” is going to be wearily correcting the spelling all her life.  And people will dither over whether “Megyn” should get some equally novel pronunciation, or just sound like “Megan.”

Colbie Caillat at the Malibu Inn

Colbie Caillat at the Malibu Inn

Names from other languages (which may be perfectly well-known in their own tongues) can fall into this category.  I’m reminded of singer Colbie Caillat, though I’m thinking more of the last name than the first.  “Caillat” looks French to me, and in French it would come out something like “kye-aw” (as she says in this interview).  But the name as it’s actually used is said “cal-lay” (there’s an audio link on the Wikipedia page), which sounds as if someone threw up their hands and said “I can’t figure it out, but it’s French, so it must end in ‘ay.’”

(5)  Commemoration.  Names that duplicate those of other family members are appealing.  We may like the idea of commemorating a parent, sibling, or more distant relative in a child’s name.  On the other hand, having the same names constantly recur breeds confusion.  I’ve torn my hair out at times trying to make sense of old family Bible genealogy pages in which every third individual is named Robert or William, and nobody at the time bothered to specify which William or Robert they were referring to.  I feel it’s more interesting to give family members distinctive names—which is one reason there’s no Frederick E. Ellrod IV.

You may also want to honor famous historical or fictional characters.  Even if their names are not weird, though, we want to be careful about how they come across.  Different people may have different associations with the same name; we can’t control that, but sometimes we can anticipate it, especially if the name is distinctive.  I might want to name a boy after Albert Einstein, but a listener might think of Fat Albert or Uncle Albert.

Emergence cover, first edition(6)  Age-appropriateness.  There are names that can become incongruous depending on the age or character of the child.  For example, “Edith” might be attractive for Tolkien fans (it was J.R.R. Tolkien’s wife’s name); but it seems so staid that I can’t picture a small child named Edith.  Conversely, it might be cute to name a girl Candace and call her “Candy.”  But that inherently trivial-sounding monicker might seem embarrassing to a teenager, and positively annoying to a grown woman who wanted to be taken seriously.  David R. Palmer’s engaging post-apocalyptic novel Emergence (1984) plays off that factor by giving us an eleven-year-old first-person heroine named Candy (Candidia)—who also happens to be a genius, an advanced karate master, and generally as formidable as any Heinlein female lead.  In this case, the very incongruity is part of the fun.

(7)  Ambiguity.  Names that are ambiguous as to gender, like “Morgan,” “Lindsay,” or “Leslie,” may appeal to some parents for exactly that reason, but they’ll also make it harder for strangers to know how to address the person later on.  When you’re writing a formal letter, it doesn’t help if you can’t tell whether the salutation should be “Dear Mr.” or “Dear Ms.”

Anne of Green Gables book cover(8)  Nicknames.  What are you actually going to call the kid?  Some names support multiple nicknames, some only one, and some are unnicknameable.  And to me at least, “Anne” has quite a different sound and resonance than “Annie.”  (Anne Shirley famously insisted on “Anne” even as opposed to “Ann.”)  You can name someone “Elizabeth” and make available a plethora of diminutives and variants, from Lizzie to Beth to Lisa.  But give a baby the name “Faith” and that’s pretty much the only possibility.  Unless, of course, the nickname comes completely out of left field.  I once was introduced to the wife of a partner at a law firm whose name tag read “Winkie.”  There was no predicting that one.

(9)  Initials.  We should at least try out the full name’s initials before we decide.  A friend of my sister’s grew up with the initials “B.O.,” and naturally at a certain age she was razzed about that.  I once put my full name’s initials—FEE—on something in an office refrigerator, and puzzled some people who thought there was a charge for that item.  If nothing else, I’ve always favored giving the members of a family different first-name initials, so it’s easy to list them on a miniature golf scorecard just by their letters.

Of course, if a person ends up changing their last name later in life, all bets are off—as if it wasn’t complicated enough already.

 

So even in the sphere of ordinary Tom-Dick-and-Harry contemporary names, there are a lot of angles to think about.  Next time, we’ll venture into naming conventions in fantastic worlds, where things only get more complicated.