Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Worldbuilding: More about names

I thought, given the recent post about names and diacritical marks, I’d just talk a little bit more about developing consistent-sounding names for secondary world fantasy novels. Of course that’s a very different type of thing than coming up with good character names for a contemporary or historical novel, and most science fiction books either use contemporary names, or a mix of contemporary and created names, or sometimes contemporary words in unexpected ways (such as Butterflies-are-free Peace Sincere).

But for secondary world fantasy, you need a whole bunch of character and place names that all sound good, and kind of evoke the character or place, and also sound consistent, like they all came from the same language background. I’m sure I don’t need to point this out, but within one geographical region, if one character is named, say, Innisth terè Maèr Eäneté, then maybe another shouldn’t be named Kzoch Techotlin or Qing Pe Swe or anything else so very different. That’s reasonable only if one character has traveled a long way, from a region with a very distinct language background. What are some ways to make up names that all sound like they came from the same linguistic tradition?

For The White Road of the Moon and Winter of Ice and Iron – again, both based on my first attempt to write a fantasy novel – I just made up words that looked nice to me. The trouble with doing that forever is that the same letters and letter combinations always are going to look good or look less good to a specific author, unless their taste changes dramatically for some reason. I like t and r and n more than g or p or z. But if you are writing in lots of completely different secondary worlds, none of the languages should necessarily look too much like English and (even more important) they should not all look like they are derived from the same language, so you can’t keep on emphasizing “t” and deemphasizing “g” forever in everything you write.

One way I’ve used several times to create a coherent-sounding set of names is: open a handy guide to (say) the mammals of Borneo and steal a whole bunch of words, shuffling letters around to avoid using the actual names and also to avoid the rather common “ng” letter combination, which to English-speakers looks unpronounceable if at the beginning of a word (ngombe) or often silly if at the end of a word (pring). This will give you a lot of cool-looking names that are pretty easy to pronounce, seem to have come out of one unified linguistic tradition, but don’t look a bit like English. (The resulting book with the names derived from those names derived from the mammals and places of Borneo is not yet published, so don’t try to think which one it could possibly be.)

Another time I opened a German dictionary and did the same thing, again switching letters around freely. That was for the second Griffin Mage book, when I needed a lot of Casmantian names and places. This did create a different complication: for the German edition, the translator asked if it would be all right to change any names that would look silly to German-speaking readers. Of course I said yes, so the names are a little different in that edition. I don’t know if that suggests this method of creating a coherent-sounding language is inherently unwise, but it does illustrate one peril of doing it that way.

An alternate method, if one is wary of sounding silly to German-speakers or whomever, is to list the letters of the alphabet and more or less arbitrarily remove half a dozen consonants and one vowel. Then pick half a dozen consonants and one vowel to use a lot. Then come up with one or a few letter combinations that are uncommon in English, like aa or tch or tl or ei.

Now create a bunch of words. Want to make all the masculine names end in –a and –i, all the feminine names end in –o and –aa? This is the time to come up with rules of that kind as well. Maybe reach outside modern custom and pick –a for children and –ei for adolescents and –i for adults and –o for the elders; why not?

Just don’t do the same kind of thing with prefixes because if you name all your children something beginning with A, your readers will never be able to tell your characters apart. It’s quite remarkable how names that ought to be obviously different, such as Ketièth and Kehera, confuse the eye even though one terminates with a vertical stroke and the other a rounded letter. (I had a rather important character named Ketièth for a long time in Winter, but at the last moment changed his name to Gereth on the grounds that there were hardly any characters who started with a G and even I was sometimes confusing the two K names.)

Okay, I’m sure we all agree that names are important. If you have by any chance ever invented a world that was not contemporary or historical, but was secondary, with a completely different language, did you use any specific tricks to create names that sounded consistent, unfamiliar, and interesting? Can you think of any authors who have done an especially great job with names in a secondary world setting?

I’ve got one: Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) in The Goblin Emperor. Let me add, in case you do not know, there is a glossary in the back of the book. This is not obvious in the ebook edition, but it would be handy to know about while reading because the names are quite something: long and complicated and often difficult to pronounce (Csethiro, for example). You will note, however, that Addison gave the actual protagonist an easy-to-pronounce name. I definitely think this is a good idea. No matter what you are going to do with names in general, for heaven’s sake, make sure the main character’s name is not going to cause difficulty. It’s got to be difficult to connect emotionally with the character if you can’t pronounce the name. The farthest I’ve ever departed from that rule is with Timou in The City in the Lake. At least it’s short and easily recognized. Any reader should be able to decide how they want to pronounce it, so hopefully it wasn’t a problem for anyone.

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4 Comments Worldbuilding: More about names

  1. mona

    The idea of varying suffixes according to age is awesome. Now introduce an ageless character–what would happen? Do the age suffixes carry over to animals and plants?

    Is Timou difficult? I would guess the ‘ou’ is the part you’re thinking of, but it doesn’t particularly break any phonetic rules in English. In fact, if you’re familiar with caribou then you have a template to follow. Now I’m curious, how did you want people to read it? I also noticed in your previous post on diacritics, it seems like when you read ‘Ea’, you use e as in ‘keen’, is that right? I associate that sound (in ‘keen’) more with the letter i, so perhaps I would write the same name with ‘Ia’ instead. How would you read that? Like ‘eye’, so eye-a? This is very interesting to me; I’m curious where other native English speakers would fall on this.

  2. Estara Swanberg

    Authors using foreign sounding names in their series well, I’d say C.J. Cherryh in the Foreigner series with all the Atevi names, P.C. Hodgell in the Kencyrath books or Sherwood Smith in the Satorias-deles books.

    Or of course Andrea Höst in Touchstone for example. Though it was fascinating to talk to her at Loncon 3 and see that a vowel name like Kaoren Ruel is totally different sounding with an Australian accent when I read it in my head with more of a German vowel pronunciation (the r I actually did pronounce English in my head) – which makes it sound somewhat Japanese inspired.

  3. Rachel

    Estara, now I want to hear AKH pronounce “Kaoren Ruel” so I can see how she does it. For me it’s something like Kaa-OR-in Rue-el.

  4. Rachel

    Mona, I do pronounce “Timou” like “Carabou.” But it’s an unusual structure for a name. I got it from Barbara Hambly, the Benjamin January series — Ben’s sister is named Minou and I liked the way that looked and sounded in my head.

    Yes, to me “ia” looks like eya-a.

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