Wednesday, June 06, 2007

What's in a name? Genus and phylum, if you're lucky.

Fantasy authors are particularly horrifying about naming their characters. Either you get Slewethellinythlinne the elf, or Slud Brainbiter the barbarian, or Kn'rth'n Qu'rf'thnx the...whatever. Likely as not, the author also wants you to believe these three people grew up together in the same isolated 62-person village, and none of them has ever acquired a knick-name. Not even Slewethellinythlinne.

If a character's name is too complex, my brain doesn't process it. I have read entire books with my noggin identifying the protagonist as Tre-*mumblemumble*, because the hero's name is too hard to decipher. And the author probably worked really hard to come up with such a cool name, too.

If a character's name is too weird, my brain has trouble remembering it's a name, and that means I have trouble attaching the name to its character. In The Bone Doll's Twin by Lynn Flewelling, the first character you meet is the wizard Iya. However, every time Iya showed up, I had to pause and puzzle out who she was again. I knew the character's identity - I just couldn't remember her damned name. My brain refused to attach it to her.

I love George R. R. Martin's approach in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. He uses names that are misspelled or simplified versions of names that are familiar, like Jaime, Eddard or Cersei. He also uses simple names that are easy for your brain to latch onto and which sound like names, such as Bran, Davos or Tommen.

The name needs to be pronounceable, and it needs to be easily identified as a name.

Now. Whenever I have need to name a character, I usually end up rubber-necking my apartment in distress, hoping my eyeballs will latch onto something I can use. I have only once named a character "Orchid", but you see the danger here.

I've learned to just give the blighters a name and get on with the writing. By the time I'm done my final draft, I'll have come up with something better.

If you're a writer, how do you come up with character names? Do you pull a nice collection of sounds out of the air? Use family/friends/coworker's names? Try to describe the person's character with their name? Or do you try to give them a "cool" name (such as our teenaged-selves coveted, like "Raven" or "Steel")?

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