Thoughtful Thursday: The power of a name

First off, congratulations to BookobsessedGrl who won Stacia Kane’s Demon’s Inside in our drawing from Monday. Please e-mail SB Frank by Sunday with your address.

Secondly, the future of an unborn child is in your hands. Names have power. Fantasy is replete with stories about how to know the name of a person is to control it. Rumpelstiltskin springs readily to mind. The many names of Gandalf is another example. Many religious traditions hold this belief as well, from Adam gaining dominion in the Garden of Eden by naming the other creatures, to naming ceremonies where choosing your own name is a passageway to adulthood.

One of our reviewers, Robert Thompson, is expecting a new daughter shortly. He asked me if I would ask all of you your opinion of fantasy naming conventions.  In an earlier post, I made fun of fantasy naming conventions, which seem to involve replacing half of the vowels with a ‘ and the other half with a w, h, or k, depending on the sub-genre. The ones that are really bad combine that style of naming with a protagonist named Steve, because you’re going to get Kyvw’lk and Steve in the same society.

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So, dear readers, this is your task: Why do fantasy authors have a tendency to pick horrendous names? Is it an easy stand in for actual world building?  Have you come across a particularly awesome or egregious name in a fantasy novel? (Robert is especially interested in the awesome ones!) And, if you were going to name a child after a fantasy character, who would it be?

Robert will be eagerly anticipating your answers, but he is not promising to use any of them. To make up for that, post a comment by noon eastern on Sunday, November 22, and we’ll enter you in a drawing to win our Advanced Review Copy (not a shiny hardback, sorry) of Charlaine Harris’s Grave Secret. It’s not the ability to control someone’s future, but it’s a distant second.

LATER UPDATE! HERE’S ROBERT’S LITTLE GIRL! HER NAME IS KAYLA.

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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22 comments

  1. I’m reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne (excellent stuff!) and I like the name of one of his protagonists: Blaise. This character is a man, but I think that name would work well for a girl, too. I’m hoping I have some influence with Robert because we both named our first-born sons the same name (Zane).

  2. Blaise is actually a real French name, I think.

    I know someone who named their daughter Aliera (after Steven Brust’s character). I would have gone with Devera myself, though.

  3. I’m particularly fond of Glenn Cook’s names in The Black Company – they’re clear descriptions of the characters that mean something in their own tongue, rather than a string of ghs and apostrophes.

    Specifically, I think Croaker is a fantastic name … perhaps not for a modern-day baby girl, though.

  4. Names are incredibly important. They can help identify where a character comes from, (obviously) differentiate or identify characters from one another, and (as is the case with most of the best ones) also reveal something about the character’s nature.

    Sometimes authors play with the power of names out in the open. (E.g. Emerald/Green from Jay Lake’s GREEN, one of the best books I’ve read this year. And Kvothe–with all of the possible translations and other names he picks up–from Patrick Rothfuss’s THE NAME OF THE WIND. I finally managed to get a reasonably priced 1st edition of TNOTW, with the variant cover of Kvothe, and the whole inside flap is about Kvothe’s names.) Other times it’s more subtle. I agree that Blaise from ASFA is a good example, sounding like “blaze,” which the character ultimately must decide to do. Given the sheer number of them, George R.R. Martin does a fine job in his Ice and Fire saga (deriving Lannister and Stark from Lancaster and York in the War of the Roses). I like Ferro Maljinn from Joe Abercrombie’s THE BLADE ITSELF, with its connotations of iron and an evil genie; Number Ten Ox from Barry Hughart’s BRIDGE OF BIRDS; Sevarian (an apprentice torturer) from Gene Wolfe’s New Sun saga; and of course Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane (combining two Biblical names associated with wisdom and killing for a grim Puritan wanderer).

    On the other hand, ‘Bella Swan’ (Twilight) sometimes triggers my gag reflex … but at least it doesn’t move me toward book- or self-immolation the way ‘Darken Rahl’ (Wizard’s First Rule) does.

  5. Probably the most atrocious names I’ve seen in fantasy have been from Elizabeth Kerner and Diana Pharaoh Francis. No, I don’t remember any…that is, I remember vague blurs of long strings of letters that made little sense together. I also loathe most things Celtic or Gaelic because they almost never include pronunciation guides.

    I personally take a lot of care picking letters when I’m make up names (though I don’t always work in made up names). You have to or you come out with stuff that looks like the cat walked across the keyboard. …though I confess I do occasionally write names like that when I’m writing stuff that’s humorous and cheeky.

    I think probably some favorites of mine from fantasy have been Karigan (Kristen Britain’s Green Rider books), Alanna (Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet), and Seriana (Carol Berg’s Bridge of D’Arnath books), probably because they all sound relatively normal. You could do a lot worse to your daughter.

  6. Well, I go for the cheesy names that reflect traits, or lack thereof. So,applying that to a newborn, you’d get, what, Red Raisin or Baldwhine or Cryella or something that, let’s be honest, is going to make middle school a living H-E-L-L for the poor girl. So, probably, Robert, you should avoid taking any advice from me. I do like Patrick Rothfuss’ description of Kvothe’s many names that you refer to. So, I’d say you’re in good hands, though, um, come to think of it, Kvothe probably isn’t a good name for a daughter, either, just saying…

  7. I’ve long been partial to Elena as a name that could work well both in fantasy and real life … but apparently so was the author of The Vampire Diaries. :(

    RR
    (Robert Rhodes, not the esteemed Robert Thompson)

  8. Alanna is a good choice, or Alessandra (Sandry) from the Magic Circle books by Pierce. I like Llanet from Mageworlds series by Debra Doyle and James Macdonald. I named my Bekah before I read that series.
    Robin McKinley’s Harimad might not work, but maybe Aerin? I’ve always thought Kayla would work in a fantasy book.

  9. I was always bugged by the Sword of Truth names. Very normal Richard Cypher (Rahl), but then the fantastical sounding Kahlan Amnell and Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander. It was very jarring to read.
    When there are regular names used in fantasy novels it pulls me back into reality.
    I’ve always loved the lyrical quality of the names in LOTR, but those are all a bit trendy now.

  10. How about the names in Robin Hobb’s Farseer books – where the name reflects some quality of the person? Chivalry, Verity, Will, …

  11. Hi :)
    Congratulations on the upcoming birth Robert!
    Sometimes I think the author picks a name in a misguided attempt to make the novel ‘more’ Fantasy oriented. There have been a few bad ones I’ve read. I don’t like Pug. :)
    However I love the name Killashandra Ree (it is musical, isn’t it?) (oops, that was SF). I love the names that reflect the character so well that you can’t imagine the character being named anything else. Like Anita Blake or Merry Gentry. Or Georgina Kincaid. Or Taran. Or Aragorn. Or Harry Dresden.
    :)
    If I was to name a child from a fantasy… I don’t know. Girl = Eilonwy Boy = Rand
    :)
    Thank you for the fun contest.
    Congratulations again to Robert.
    All the best,
    RKCharron
    :)

  12. I think author’s want characters to stand out with their names. Sort of like when parents take a perfectly good name and screw it up with an alternative spelling. I personally get frustrated with crazy names, I hate the feeling that I am mispronouncing a name while I am reading.

    If I was to pick a name, I would choose Bella. Totally kidding. I love the name Arwen. Good luck with your new baby!

  13. Ok, but you have to admit that Lord of the Rings are pronounceable and not as weird as most fantasy names. I think people do it because they have created a world that is theirs – they get to do what they want and so it’s a bit of a pride thing.
    Elspeth (from Obernewtyn)
    Amberglas – from a variety of authors.
    Crystalorn – seriously? The princess in Wrede’s Seven Towers.
    May I suggest you use an older but time-tried name like…Sophie. Or Nora. Or my favorite – Evangeline.
    And of course, congratulations. :)

  14. I’ve named WoW characters after Kerowyn from Mercedes Lackey and Maida from Charles de Lint (I wanted to create an identical character named Zia, so I can have both of the Crow Girls, but the name was already taken.) I think Zia Thompson has a nice ring to it. :)

  15. I agree with what a few other have pointed out as the authors attempt to make the story more “fantasy” and to try and be “original.” Everyone wants to be original, except I guess for all the twilight wannabes. Sorry for the digression! LOL

    It can be very detracting from the story when I have to stop reading and figure out how to say someone’s name. :-/

    But one book that comes to mind where I feel the names are both somewhat original but also pronounceable is Auralia’s Colors by Jeffery Overstreet. I love this book!! I especially like the women’s names from the novel: Auralia, Ellocea, Queen Thesere…

    Best wishes for you and your family!

  16. Thanks for the suggestions everyone! I really appreciate it :) Kayla is actually a name I like, though not my wife, and Zia (or Zya as I was spelling it) was another one since I thought it would be cool if our daughter had a ‘z’ name as well.

    For me personally, I really love the names in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, although Annie didn’t like any of them enough to name our baby ;)

    Thanks again!

  17. Robert, with the middle initial you were considering, naming her Zya would make her initials ZIT. Just something to think about. :D

  18. I hate it when I don’t know the correct pronunciation of a name in a book I’m reading. I’ll obsess over how to pronounce a name and completely forget the story that revolves around that character. If you’re going to name your character or in this case, baby, something off-the-wall then for God’s sake, include a pronunciation guide. :)

  19. Ruth, yeah talking to my wife, I remembered why we didn’t like the ‘z’ name ;) The middle name definitely complicates things a little…

  20. In the older fantasy books, it appears that authors were looking for the exotic. I find it very hard to read these books when I can’t even guess at how to begin to pronounce the name itself. Sometimes it appears the more syllables the better. I love the stories, but have to abbreviate the names in my own mind. My best advice — pick a name that is easy to learn to write.

  21. I found some strange names in my readings, but I cannot quite remember them now.. My favorite… well, I’ll say just some.
    – Sirius, Bellatrix (stars and also characters in Harry Potter series)
    – Daemon and Sebastian(in quite a few places)
    – Arwen, Galadriel and a few more elves (from LOTR)
    – Menolly (from Anne McCaffrey’s books)
    … and quite a lot more.

  22. If the middle initial is I, then a K name would make it KIT. That wouldn’t be so bad.
    Kylie? Kyrin or Kirin. Ki Rin are mythical oriental unicorn type creatures. Also known as Qilin. They are said to bring serenity.
    http://featherdust.critter.net/windstonehtml/pages/Golden%20Sunrise%20Kirin%20and%20Dragon%20PYOs.html
    the one on the left is a baby Kirin – must add to my Christmas list.

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