Thursday, May 7, 2009

World Building: Naming

Following on my post about geography, here's one about naming.

How the heck do you set up a linguistic pattern that makes sense but is, somehow, other?

I've been reviewing some of the names in the books I have in my TBR pile and the answers seem varied. The SF writers have it easier since most of the stories we read involve humans and we humans are unlikely to give our children weird names (Apple notwithstanding). John Scalzi's hero in Old Man's War is named John. Pretty basic but, to me, it helps me relate with him.

In fantasy, however, naming things seems to go part and parcel with world building. Tolkien did it to great extent, going so far as to create his own language. I'm not going there (I don't think). You have structures to name, tools to name, geography to name, creatures to name, and people to name. When it comes to the people, I think you have to have a name for your hero that 'looks normal.' Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself has three protagonists: Logan, Glokta, and Luthar. Not too weird. Since I'm only a few pages into the story, I can actually tell the type of character these three are merely by the types of names Abercrombie chose. My guess is that Logan will be the fun one, Glotka will be the one who's darker than we expect, and Luthar is just a few letters away from Lucifer so I dont' trust him already. Tom Lloyd's The Stormcaller's hero is Isak. Again, not too weird. It ambivalent and allows Lloyd to paint a picture of Isak with his own brush.

When it comes to monsters, I think the weirder the name, the easier it is to evoke evil or otherness. Cthulu anyone? I remember some of the early Alan Dean Foster Humanx-Commonwealth novels of the 70s having a bunch of vowel-depleted names. Perhaps that was his way of making the aliens more alien but it was difficult to get the world in my brain. And I didn't like them, which was probably the reason he chose those names.

So, how do you writers decide what to name things? Do you choose names as the first indicator of the type of character?

Readers, does a convoluted naming structure help you with a book or does it get in the way?


  1. Ah, The Blade Itself. I've been putting off reading the third book in that series for a while to prolong the anticipation, but started last night. It's a fun series and Glokta's one of the best characters I've come across for a while.

    Anyhow, as a writer I give them a generic name at the start and slowly as their character reveals themselves they decide whether they want to be a Barney or a Clint. As a reader I like the names, in fantasy particularly, to have some good reason to be what they are. Celtic type fantasy should have celctic names etc. I utterly hate characters called Fr'and-g'hura when they're called that for no good reason other than it's fantasy.

  2. In answer to your question about convoluted naming structures helping or hindering, my feeling is that if I have to stop reading to figure out the pronunciation of a name, then somebody did something wrong. Some writers fall in love with playing grammatical games to create unique spellings. I often wonder who the first guy to throw an apostrophe into an alien name was.

    I've always dug one of George Lucas' systems. He finds rare and exotic place names and then just uses the phonetic spelling. It's pretty effective. Tataouine is a city in Tunisia. Tatooine is the planet Arrakis in the Star Wars universe.