On Character Names

Fantasy names!

We see a lot of fantasy and science fiction authors choosing names for characters that are literally out of this world. Sometimes they’re just weird made-up names and sometimes they’re attempting to reflect nature/symbolism and sometimes they’re “futuristic” or something. Sometimes I see folks online–usually people who don’t like to read SF/F–mocking or rolling their eyes at fantastical names and laughing at the authors for the choices they make. Some of them seem to think the far-outness of the names indicates immaturity or silliness or wish-fulfillment author fantasies–like we name our characters weird things to make them mysterious, majestic, exotic, and cool. And that’s kind of irritating to me.

I write a lot of SF/F. About half the time, I give the characters unusual names. I don’t do it just because. I do it if it makes sense. Basically, if you have characters on another world or in another dimension who have never met people from our world and don’t speak our language, they’re not going to use the same names, but then of course critics might say “well, if you’re translating their moon language into an Earth language, why not translate their names to the equivalent? In other words, if you have a character whose name is common in their language, what’s wrong with naming them Bob?”

Indeed. What’s wrong with naming your alien characters Bob?

Here’s what I think. Unlike most words, names are specific labels for individual people. They almost always have a history–very few names are just an island of cool-sounding noises–and giving a name to a person (or, in fact, a place) indicates a connection to that history. Bob isn’t just Bob. He’s Robert, whose name has Germanic roots. If you don’t have a Germany in your fantasy land, Robert doesn’t really come from anywhere. And while it’s fine to base a fantasy world on ours and therefore have some shared names, it’s also fine NOT to.

I considered this a lot while naming characters in my fantasy worlds. InĀ Bad Fairy, there’s a fair amount of crossover between my made-up world and our world, but they’re not the same world. It’s kind of a mish-mash, and they have some of the same gods and goddesses from our mythology, but others are completely made up (or, rather, they’re maybe recognizable deities that have been renamed). Similarly, there are plenty of names we’d recognize in the story–nearly everyone has a name that would work in our world–but a few are made up but still digestible by our aesthetic standards. There’s the protagonist Delia and her mother Gena, her friends Fiona and Drake, and her rivals Chloe, Livia, and Beatrice–but there are also a few people in her class with names like Leahan, Kagen, and Briony. I think it kind of gives you a reminder that it’s a slightly different culture in a slightly different time, even though they aren’t important characters.

In a short story I sold last year (which still hasn’t been published), my characters have symbolic names. There aren’t many named characters and names have a really important meaning in the culture of the fantasy characters because when they partner with others their partners give them new names. My protagonist, oddly enough, does not have a name. Her daughter, the focus of the story, is named Iris; I picked a flower. A boy in the story is named Briar. New names for people in the story after partnering include Grace and Laurel. Nature names made sense for the world.

And in a story that I just got an offer for (yay!), everyone, without exception, basically has a nonsense made-up name. And their names aren’t even particularly intuitive to pronounce by English standards. So why did I do that?

Yes, there was a reason. I had created a culture that’s strongly gender segregated, and the protagonist is transgender (though I don’t use the word “gender” anywhere in the story). Now, you spend the entire story in the protagonist’s head understanding her as a girl, but her culture understands her to be a boy and reads her given name, Lihill, as a boy’s name. She also wants to do things girls do in their culture and has to deal with a LOT of pushback, but we don’t have the same “NO THAT IS NOT FOR BOYS” attitude toward the things she wants to do. I thought the whole thing would acquire a more sympathetic vibe from the reader if we had no knee-jerk feeling that this is a boy’s name and those are a boy’s things. I have to wonder if the average person would be as willing to set aside preconceived notions about her gender if I’d named her Bob.

Probably not.

Names are way more than a jumble of sounds. And as writers, we’re supposed to be word artists. We make choices about how we use names, and though most of the time when I set a story in the real world my characters have pretty ordinary names, there are times when ordinary names would be way weirder in context.

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