Two writers on worldbuilding, fantasy, and whatever else comes to mind.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Fantasy Names

Adapted from a blog post published in 2013.

In a constructed world, characters' names should ideally come from the relevant conlangs (constructed languages).  This is especially helpful when there's a large cast of named characters from many different places: if the languages are different enough, the reader can start to feel where a character might come from, going only by his name.  (Compare the names Bilbo, Gimli, Legolas, Théoden, Ar-Pharazôn, Ghân-buri-Ghân:  One isn't going to forget quickly which one is the hobbit and which one is the elf.)

My problem with books like those in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, in which all the names seem more or less made up out of thin air, is that I forget who comes from which culture because the names don't give many clues.  Also, the pronunciation system is maddening.  (As far as I can tell from the glossary, the letter y represents ee in Amys and Martyn, eh in Amyrlin, ih in Bryne and Gawyn, uh in Myrddraal, and eye in Nynaeve, and ll is /l/ as in English in Callandor but /j/ as in Spanish in cuendillar!)

The obvious solution is to put some work into a few solid conlangs.  If one doesn't have the time, or the interest, I have two other suggestions:

One possible solution is just to use names that we commonly have in our world.  One might decide that, theoretically, the characters all have names in their own languages, but for the purposes of the story, one is representing them with English names.  In this case, sticking to classic names (Robert, Julian, Peter, Edith, Hannah, Virginia) sounds more sensible than using a lot of new or re-spelled names (Alexandyr, Khloe, Makayla, Londyn, Jayla, Jazmine), because the older names tend to feel more as if they belong to some well-developed culture.

One could, for instance, give names derived from Latin to characters from one place (Julian, Marcus, Virginia, Lucia), names found in the Bible to those from another place (Peter, Hannah, Joshua, Mary), and traditional English names (Arthur, Audrey; one might include English names from German and French) to those from a third place.  Or one could use names from other real-world languages (Spanish, Arabic, Chinese).

A variation on this is to use English words as names (Rose, Ruby; perhaps things like Falcon or Justice as male names), or words in another language.  (I'd discourage Latin as so many Latin words feel rather clinical from their use in scientific names.)  Tolkien did something a bit like this when he used English and Old English to represent names in the Shire and Rohan.

The other possible solution is to fake some conlangs.  Whether one is faking or actually making conlangs, I strongly recommend reading Mark Rosenfelder's Language Construction Kit (of parts of which the following instructions are a gross simplification).  For each fake language:

1.  Skim through some kind of basic introduction to phonetics (the first file of the LCK has a good one) and choose the phonology, that is, the sounds (and hence letters) that occur in the language.

2.  Choose the permitted structure of syllables.  (Usually my conlang Heláin allows only syllables of the structure (C)(l/r/y/w)V(C), so while denir and cwella are acceptable Heláin words, *ardzhun and *purzhtimrh are not.  Those words, on the other hand, are ordinary words from the language of a nearby people.)

3.  Choose some general naming guidelines: Does this people group prefer names of one syllable? two? any length?  Are there feminine and masculine endings, or endings indicating a location?  What about prefixes or suffixes meaning 'son or daughter of'?  Do people have surnames? middle names? more than one surname or middle name?  And so forth.

4.  Invent some names that follow those rules.  (If you're in a hurry, make Gen invent them.)

One can make several fake conlangs, each with somewhat different rules from the others, so that characters' names will hint at their origins.  While one is at it, one should make sure that the same letter (or set of letters, if one is using digraphs like th, ch, ng) is pronounced the same way in all names; it will save the author the trouble of writing out pronunciations for every name, and the reader the trouble of looking up every name in the glossary or else mispronouncing them.  The safest pronunciation for vowels is as in Latin (or Elvish): a, e, i, o, u as the sounds in baa, bay, bee, bow[tie], boo.

One last tip:  Avoid decorative apostrophes.  In English, an apostrophe means that part of a word's been left out.  When spelling foreign names, though, an apostrophe usually represents a glottal stop -- that throaty catch in the middle of uh-oh.  One begins to feel that, in The Wheel of Time, the apostrophe (as well as h) is used to disguise English words, presumably so that they look like foreign names.  A few of the bands into which the evil creatures are divided are the Bhan'sheen, the Dha'vol, the Dhai'mon, and the Ghob'hlin.  This isn't clever; it's just silly.

Of course, one could always find, once one has faked a few conlangs, that one wants to assign meanings to some of the name-words generated.  And then one wants to use them to write poetry.  As I said, the obvious solution is to put some work into a few solid conlangs.  You know you want to.

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