What’s In a (Fantasy) Name?

So, what’s in a name? That’s the question I’m going to explore today. I’ll give you the answer now: everything, that’s what. How can I write an article about a question I’ve just answered? Answer: I can’t, but it does lead me nicely into an article on fantasy character names.

Let’s get down to the topic at hand. Names. If I’m being honest, names are one of those aspects of writing fantasy that I both love and loathe. You may remember an article I put together on this subject a while back (And Don’t Call Me Shirley) which dealt more with coming up with names. What I want to talk about now is how names affect the characters they are pinned on.

Take the example below:

The great sorcerer, Gob Blackfist, reached into his robes and produced a wand. He beckoned to his servants, a brutish warrior called Amiah LaFontaine and a pretty young she-thief called Alcandameus the Pale.

Please feel free to send in your messages of adoration; it’s a masterpiece, right? But seriously, there’s something really wrong with the names in that snippet. Now, there’s nothing wrong with calling your sorcerer Gob Blackfist, so long as you explain why he’s called that. Why do you have to explain your choice of name? Because it’s non-conventional and the reader will question it.

Here’s another example. The names are now as you might expect:

The great sorcerer, Alcandameus the Pale, reached into his robes and produced a wand. He beckoned to his servants, a brutish warrior called Gob Blackfist and a pretty young she-thief called Amiah LaFontaine.

‘Yes, master?’ Gob asked.

Alcandameus grinned. ‘I think I have finally solved this accursed problem with our names!’

See, that was better, right? No strange names where they shouldn’t be and no orc-type names for our great sorcerer. If you came across an author of bloodthirsty, epic fantasy on the bookshelves and his name was Clarence Pink, you’d be a bit turned off from reading his work. If, however, he used a pen name like Alex Steel… well, bring on the violence!

In the same respect, it’s strange to come across a person whose surname matches their job. A traffic warden called Ian Fines, a firefighter called Rob Burns or how about a jeweler called Mr. Goldsmith? It’s true that surnames originated in this way. Your local medieval blacksmith might earn himself the highly imaginative name “Blacksmith”. If you use names like this in your writing, however, it can come across as a little bit childish and silly.

The best thing to do when assigning names to your characters is to speak it out loud and maybe put the name into a few lines of dialogue. See how it sounds and if it sounds wrong, go back and try something else until it feels right.

Don’t forget that tomorrow I’ll be posting our second ever author interview. Don’t miss it, it’s going to be great!

And Don’t Call Me Shirley: Part Two – Place Names

Leslie Nielsen Airplane
Image via IMDB

Last week, we looked at character names and I shared some of my methods on creating names. If you haven’t yet read the first part of this article, you can find the link at the end of this post.

Inventing place names is a very different story.

Tell me, have you ever heard of a city called Captain Kirk, a hamlet called Vlad the Impaler or perhaps a mountain called Steve? If your answer is a firm ‘no’ then please read on. Otherwise… well, you’re just weird.

Names like Byzantium, Jerusalem, Loch Ness and Cornwall have grown and developed organically over time. They often stem from other languages to our own or they arise out of local customs or nicknames. These sorts of names conjure up an image in the mind and as we learn more about the world, we attach our own connotations to these place names. Stonehenge, for example, reminds me of many childhood holidays and as soon as I think of the word Stonehenge my mind begins conjuring up images of druidic rituals, the long childhood journey on the way to Cornwall and, more recently, a trip there as an adult. Jerusalem reminds me of Assassin’s Creed, Age of Empires 2 and the film Kingdom of Heaven. Loch Ness is instantly synonymous with the Loch Ness Monster and little else, for me at least.

Here’s a little game. I’ll list some place names and you try to guess (without using Google!) which ones are made up and which ones are real. Here we go:

Foulness Island


The Empty Quarter

Roseberry Topping

Iron Mountain

Crystal Falls

OK. You saw this coming, I suppose? They are all real place names somewhere on Earth. If you looked at a typical fantasy map, you’d probably see names like the above filling every square inch of paper. If the writer doesn’t know what they are doing, the names become silly and childish. If, however, you have a convincing writer at the helm, even names like The Desolate Desert can be pulled off without the reader slamming the book down in disgust.

When I come up with place names, I first think of three broad categories:

Settlements – Hamlets, towns, cities, countries, islands etc.
Manmade Features – Castles, forts, mines, houses, monuments, roads etc.
Natural Features – Lakes, rivers, mountains, volcanos etc.

There is one specialist category, which is Worlds. This crops up rarely and I prefer to leave it well alone. I don’t enjoy naming my fantasy worlds as a whole because it’s so hard to get right. If you can pull it off, fantastic. If not, it shouldn’t detract from the story in any way.

Once I have the category for my prospective name clear in my head, I take inspiration from real world places. I quite like the ‘-tium’ ending on Byzantium and the ‘Astra-‘ beginning from Astrakhan. If you put them together you get Astratium. Nice, right?

If, for instance, I’m trying to name a geographic feature, I will focus on a physical aspect of that feature and base the name on that. Sometimes, I will have a named town that is situated at the foot of an unnamed mountain. If this happens, I will name the mountain after the town, or vice versa.

Lastly, with manmade features, I will focus on my world’s history and usually name these after a character or event that occurred in the past. You have to go about your place names in a logical way. The reader needs to believe that the inhabitants of your world named these places, not you, so you should slip into the mindset of your world’s population and really imagine what they would have called these places.

Personally, I favour the method of researching ancient cities/places and basing my naming on that. Chopping up words and reassembling them can work wonders for creating new names. Also, if your world has an invented language, you should make sure that your place names fit into the conventions of that language. By doing this, you will make the places sound far more plausible to the reader.

Hope you enjoyed this second article part on names. Make sure to check back every Tuesday when I’ll be putting up regular articles and features for your reading pleasure!

And Don’t Call Me Shirley: Part One – Character Names

Lazy Days

Hope everyone is enjoying the weekend so far. Just a quick post to ensure you that some good stuff is coming next week. The second part of Tuesday’s article on names should be up this coming Tuesday and I expect to write something meaty on coming up with ideas and inspiration for a story in the first place.

So stay tuned and be sure to make the most of Sunday!

And Don’t Call Me Shirley: Part One – Character Names

Leslie Nielsen
Image via Google Images

Deciding on a name for a character can be like trying to decide which sandwich to have for lunch. Sometimes you know exactly what you want and it works for you (Chicken and Bacon). Sometimes you struggle and you end up with something that doesn’t quite sit well (Crayfish and Rocket). In rare cases, you abandon the pursuit altogether and slack off while your novel (stomach) screams in protest (McDonald’s).

When I first started writing, I was working on a typical ‘epic’ fantasy story. The story was predictable, the creatures were stolen (elves, dwarves, giant eagles) and the hero was a self-obsessed arse. But the names were good. At least, I thought so. I’d always loved history and the English language, which gave me the drive to create names while borrowing from different periods in time.

For example:

Thail – Heavily influenced by Norse mythology and naming. Thor, anyone?

Mithas – Maybe influenced by Tolkien‘s fictional ‘mithril’?

Drall – A bad guy. Definitely influenced by the word ‘droll’ (curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement).

Of course, these characters had no surnames or had names like Mithas Dragonslayer. It’s a fantasy cliché that I now steer clear of as much as possible. In a way, it’s historically accurate. People in Ancient Greece didn’t have surnames as such, instead going for the Tolkien-style ‘Aragorn, son of Arathorn‘ or Michael Moorcock‘s ‘Elric of Melniboné‘. The sad fact is, these sorts of names often, but not always, bring attention to an immature or inexperienced fantasy writer in this modern world of gritty superhero movies, gritty reboots and Mr. Tarantino.

The rules that I apply to my naming conventions nowadays are as follows:

1. It should have roots/stem from a historical name in reality. If not, it must mean something in the language(s) of the fictional world.
2. It must be consistent with other character’s names from the same region/country in the fictional world.
3. It should include a surname/family name/title. If not, there must be a cultural/personal reason why.
4. It should be easy to say out loud and easy to read.

Here are three good examples from my fairly recent writing:

Drust Ironmane – A Celtic-style name. Drust was a real-world name. The character’s family earned the name ‘Ironmane’ because of their wiry, dark hair.

Decimus Sulla – A Roman-style name. Both were real-world names. The Romanesque names have been rehashed and put into a table I created so combinations are consistent.

Tomas Gadden – Tomas is a real-world name (more unusual than Thomas). The surname was invented and just came to me at random. Further regional surnames follow the conventions of ‘Gadden’ so they are consistent.

I suggest using baby name websites/books sparingly. It’s best to read plenty of fantasy and non-fantasy fiction, read up on a bit of history that roughly relates to the general feel of your fictional world/region and be on the lookout for unusual words/names in your day-to-day life.

Next Tuesday, I’ll cover place names in the final part of this article. Hope you can join me then and thanks for reading!