Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Alchemic Nameology – The Challenge of Fantasy Names

When reading or writing fantasy, we’re often faced with the challenge of character names. Some names roll off the tongue, while others trip us up and become recurring problems throughout the duration of the text.

There’s an expectation in the fantasy genre for names to sound a little heightened – a little more exotic – and if a name is too common, it’s scoffed at and frowned upon. If it’s too complex and missing vowels, it’s equally dismissed as distancing. So we must find the right balance.

Some family friends recently read the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Stieg Larson’s subsequent books, and most of them commented on the challenge of keeping track of all the similar-sounding names. Far too many character names began with the same letter, or had nearly identical construction with l’s and j’s and b’s. I know I’ve seen similar problems in some fantasy novels (particularly those involving a non-humanoid race), so I understand the complaint.

The names just don’t work. Or rather, they create obstacles for the enjoyment of the story – and that’s never a good thing.

During the beta reads of my novel, I, too, received some feedback that two character names sounded too alike, and it became a challenge keeping track of who’s who.

Both were secondary – or perhaps tertiary – characters, and they appeared in the same locale. In a couple of instances, I even made the mistake of typing the wrong character name – which definitely added to the confusion. In case you were curious, the names were Corella and Corinna. I’ve since changed Corella to something else.

Part of the problem stems from how our brains read English text. Our brains don’t read every single letter. They’re highly efficient (or perhaps lazy) so they try to make sense of the word based on an image-capture of the word. The order of the letters within the word doesn’t seem to matter – the brain gets a “hit,” makes sense of it, and moves on. If you’d like to see for yourself, check out this example at Help.com.

On the flip side of the coin, readers would also comment on a name sounding “too common” – that it would take them out of the mythic realm and send them crashing back to the real world.

We’ve likely all encountered some characters with unpronounceable names, or names that simply roll poorly off the tongue. There has to be a balance. But what is it, and what’s a writer to do?

Fantasy Faction posted an article back in September, 2011, called What’s In A Fantasy Name?, and they brought up some valid observations.

“The temptation is to develop names that are imaginative and unique to the created landscape. That’s a great idea but remember to keep the names pronounceable. Imagine someone reading your work aloud. Will the names detract from the flow of the story? A short common name can often allow for a character’s formal title to be a little more imaginative.”

So how do we go about choosing a name?

Some authors choose historic names or names from mythology, and tweak them – changing the vowel sounds, adding in additional letters here and there, etc. Some will scour foreign-language dictionaries or documents, looking for names that have a specific meaning in another language. Others will seek out names with sounds that evoke the character personality – or the base stereotype or archetype they’re trying to conjure. These are all valid tools, and can lead to some wonderful names.

For me, I look for names that suit the style of my writing. Some cultures in my world have very specific name constructions (and name lineage), while others are vowel-heavy. And as a voice, speech, and text specialist in the theatre, I understand the impact of vowel and consonant sounds, so I tend to make use of them to help underscore or produce meaning. Sometimes it’s effective and sometimes it falls flat. But for the most part, I’m always game to tweak the names until they’re just right.

Have you ever encountered names which turn you off? What are some examples of overly complex names? If you’re a writer, how do you choose your name – and how much does that name define the character for you? Would you be heart-broken if a publisher asked you to change the character name? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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4 responses to “Alchemic Nameology – The Challenge of Fantasy Names

  1. Siân January 29, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    Quote: ‘During the beta reads of my novel, I, too, received some feedback that two character names sounded too alike, and it became a challenge keeping track of who’s who.’

    Hah! It’s a good thing they never beta read for Tolkien’s ‘The Silmarillion’. Finwë, Ingwë, Elwë, Fëanor, Fingolfin, Finarfin, Finrod, Fingon, etc, or, in Quenya, Curufinwë, Ñolofinwë, Nelyafinwë, Arafinwë…and so on.
    Of course, they all meant something since Tolkien created two languages, and I suppose he would have responded that the names meant what he wanted them to mean, thus served their purpose. And as it was, they were not changed when the Silm’ was eventually published.

    I used to find fantasy names extremely easy, although I would often look at old Welsh or Anglo-Saxon names if the ‘world’ or people had that kind of flavour to them. If they were more exotic, alien, Elvish or some other name that I gave to what was basically an Elvish or Immortal race, I would speak something that flowed, something that sounded liquid.
    I do find longer, tongue-twisting names can bring my reading to a halt while I try to pronounce them. I might be reading something like, ‘They were dicing for copper rings, though on their return to Algost, they would be recompensed in gold. As they began to scramble to their feet, Rhyztenzrathacz pressed them down.’
    That kind of name would bring me to a halt, because my English mind is not used to such jaggedness. On the other hand, if he was called Bob, I would laugh. :)

  2. Thomas Evans January 29, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Great point. I had a friend who was terribly confided by the Lord of The Rings because of the similarity of the names Sauron and Saruman.

    However I find it is true of even common names in non fantasy tales. In a book in which there was a Tim and a Tom, a Sam (Samantha) a Sally and a Sarah it all got a bit confusing.

  3. Janalyn Voigt January 29, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    I did have an editor require me to change the names of my main characters. I didn’t care all that much. For me, it’s about the story, and there are plenty of great names to use.

    By the way, I prefer to believe our brains are efficient rather than lazy. :o)

  4. Paul Welch January 29, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    Good point, Sian – it makes me wonder if Tolkien’s names have turned people off of his work?

    @Janalyn – so interesting that they made you change the names. What reasons did they offer up? Did you agree with/understand their reasoning?

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