The Lost Art of Names
I published poetry before I published fiction. As a result, I focus closely on words –and none more closely than the names of characters and geographical features in my imaginary worlds. All by itself, the choice of a name can create or destroy a tone. Yet it’s a concern that very few writers seem to share.
Oh, many agonize over the names in their stories. The trouble is, they don’t try hard enough. Too often, they fall back on an online name generator. Some name generators contain hundreds of words, but the makers of name generators are no better than anyone else at coining names. More importantly, all names are specific to cultures, and the best any generator can do is create names for generic roleplaying cultures, with separate filters for elves and dwarves, and so on. These generic cultures are not your cultures, so using a name generator can result in names inappropriate to the cultures of your world, and in making your world-building derivative. Worst of all, they can result in the same name being used by several writers.
Too often, writers seem unprepared for name coining. The need for a name arises, and they panic, not wanting a blank to stand in for the name until they can think of a better one. Instead, they fall back on several inadequate tactics. Some steal randomly, placing names like Mycenae and Illyria in anachronistic circumstances. If they need a character name, they fall back on a 19th Century upper class English name, like Damian or Justin. If they need a geographical name, they will name places as though the discoverers had an aerial view. Under this system, an island that looks like a crocodile becomes Crocodile Island, and a strait between two bodies of land become The Jaws. I have seen maps in every feature is named in this way. With maps, still another alternative is to turn poetic, and populate the blank places with names that would never be used in daily life, like The Mist-Shrouded Sea, and The Islands of Mystery. Such tactics are sure signs that the names are an after-thought, and are borderline effective at best.
So how do you invent names that are really work? Few of us have the knowledge and the patience to invent languages, the way Tolkien did. However, like Tolkien, we can plan ahead, keeping a dictionary of assorted names that we can scan as necssary. At the very least, you can use rearrange the syllables of other languages until you come up with acceptable names.
Often, it is useful to consider how actually coined. For instance, far from falling back on poetry, European explorers usually named geographical features for their ships, their ship’s officers or the members of the royal family of whatever country served them. By contrast, settlers of the American west often named towns for their founders, or sometimes for their ambitions, such as Motherlode or New Jerusalem. Often the position of related names can indicate when a region was settled, so that you see English and French names on the eastern seaboard of North America, and Spanish names on the southwestern seaboard. Just by positioning names on a map, you can create a sense of history.
When it comes to people, popular names are usually generational in the last few centuries. It is relatively uncommon, for instance for a person of twenty to share a name with one of seventy. If they do, the younger person has usually been named for a family member, and may use a different version of the same name — Lizzie, for example, rather than Elizabeth. And in earlier cultures, certain suffixes often indicated a name. For instance, in Germanic cultures, “hild” often ended a woman’s name (such as Brunnhild), while in Old English, “wine” often ended a man’s name (such as Aelfwine). Invent your own snippets, and you can hint at your cultural setting.
When using any of these tactic, you also need to make sure that the name fit the circumstances. Minas Tirith, for example, would not be one quarter as evocative if it was called Smokeville. Nor would Aragorn be so heroic if he was named Hank — a fact that Tolkien was well-aware of, since he includes some discussion of whether the ranger might be crowned as Strider, the name he is known by in the north (Aragorn does eventually use Strider as the name of his dynasty, but in another language in which “it will not sound so ill”). Sometimes, you can fit the name to the circumstances by inventing a name around an association. For example, the Germanic suffix “grim” might be used for a melancholy man, and prefix that with syllables that sound like “skull, and you could have the historic Skallgrim, who sounds like someone you wouldn’t invite to parties.
Some of the old masters of fantasy, like Lord Dunsany or E. R. R. Eddision were skilled at naming. They chose sparkling, evocative names that never failed to be appropriate. Over the decades, however, that skill has been lost. And in doing so, one of the strongest tools of fantasy has been lost.