Uncategorized, World Building

The Lost Art of Names

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 fo 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.

World Building

The Stories in the Map

Ever since Tolkien, maps have been a tradition of fantasy. Too often, though, they are an after-thought, like a bibliography cobbled together at the last minute and attached to a student essay. They neglect basic geography, like the mountains that conveniently meet at right-angles to seal Mordor off from the rest of Middle-Earth. They ignore economics, plunking cities down in the middle of nowhere. Often, they ignore the history and the migrations of people across the land. The results are not only implausible, but a missed opportunity to generate stories ideas.

For example, the map for my novel attempt is of the northern part of a continent. I wanted the northern part to be largely sealed off the rest, so I added some Himalaya-like mountains, with a single connecting pass. The pass stirred memories of the Khyber Pass (even though it’s not in the Himalayas), through which armies and caravans have passed for centuries. It made sense that, at the northern end of the pass, a major city should emerge as a staging area for those heading south. To add to the importance of the city, I placed it on a river that barges could sail. I also realized that, because of the trade, who controlled the pass would be a political issue.

Although I had developed an entire map, my story came to center on the pass and the struggle over it. What methods, I wondered, would various factions choose to control the pass and the trade that passed through it? In answering that question, I developed not only my plot, but, eventually, discovered the title of the novel — all because I had taken time to ponder the geography of the place, and how it affected the local economies. Before I knew it, the story was beginning in that city at the north end of the pass.

That was a long way from where I had placed the capital city for the country. So, since mass communication hadn’t been invented yet, that city must be the capital for a semi-independence province. But how had it got that way? How had the province remained a province, rather than becoming an independent country? Given the state of roads in the past, there must be whole seasons when the place was cut off from the capital, especially since, being hard against those mountains, the place just had to be a temperate rain forest where rain and snow were a given. Thanks to the geography, back story and an important plot element started taking shape.

Oh, and one more thing: a rain forest suggests that the river beside the city would have salmon-runs. Cultures that grew up along the river would have a rich food supply. Feeding the population would be easy, so just like First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, the cultures could emphasize the arts. Even their everyday utensils and clothes would be heavily decorated. They would not have European style agriculture, because the unaltered land provided generously, although hunting and foraging rights might be fiercely defended. This situation would not be well-understood by incoming farmers, and the result would be cultural clashes.

Migrations Across the Map

As I developed my map, I kept thinking of the historical atlases that fascinated me as a boy. A given region could change dramatically over the centuries, as populations entered or passed through it. A map, I realized, should reflect these migrations. In the United Kingdom, you can tell where the Vikings settled by names that end in “by” or “thorpe,” and where the Anglo Saxons settled by names that end in “burh” (“burg) or “wick” (“wich”). So shouldn’t a fantasy map have the same cultural traces? However, before I could add to those cultural layers, I had to invent the cultures that had passed through, and figure out when and where they had been on the map.

I decided that many of the traces of the original inhabitants would have been over-written by later migrations. However, the original inhabitants were still around, although sadly diminished, so pockets on the map still displayed their place names. It seemed useful, then, to have a character who was one of those original inhabitants.

Other influences on my place-names came from a nomadic culture with Frankish-inspired names. You can trace their path from the settlements they left in their wake, now long ago incorporated into the dominant culture. Some of the nomad’s personal names remain in use, as well the use of coinage based on cattle.

Yet by far the largest influence — and most recent — was the slow, eastward settlement of the province. In the western part of the country, names sound roughly Anglo-Saxon. In the middle of the province, names sound more Middle English. Originally, I thought the eastern-most settlements would be Modern English, and many are. However, since I wanted a sudden mass settlement that would conflict with the cultures already present, I decided on a situation similar to the settlement of the North American west. But what would cause such a settlement? In our history, land and gold provided the impetus, but, in my fantasy world, I decided, the ancestor of my main character had announced that any serfs who made it to the province would become free citizens and given a grant of land. Naturally, there was a rush to take up the offer, resulting in place names like Wain and Walk or Bonder’s Run that reflected those tumultuous times. Naturally, too, the older parts of the country were not enthusiastic about the departure of productive citizens. My main character’s ancestor might have filled the vacant country side, but it would have left resentments that lingered still, and needed to be part of the story as well. At the same time, the arriving serfs would have helped displace the original cultures. Just like the Welsh did with the arrival of the Romans, the original cultures were pushed up into the mountains, which told me who was fighting for control of trade.

The map as back story

By the time I was done, where the maps ended, and where the back story or plot begun was hard to see. I had developed them all at the same time. Even the street names when I drew the map of the city at the north end of the pass were influenced by the history of the region and the ideas going into my outline.

Consequently, my map became more than a pretty piece of front matter or a reference for readers who wanted to trace the journey of the characters. Instead, my map had become central to my storytelling. Of course, few readers would have the knowledge to appreciate how my map developed. But that doesn’t matter. Spending time on the map helped me. In fact, I believe that it it continues to help me to tell a richer story, as well as a more realistic one.