How to Name Things in Fantasy


Accents and Names in Fantasy Cultures Part I: Names

Be consistent.

See? I just gave you like a thousand words’ worth of advice in one golden two-word sentence.

Now, of course, I’m going to follow it up with another thousand or so words.

This is going to be a two-parter, so hold on to your seatbelts. It’s going to be an invective-filled stunt ride of epic proportions, because these are two subjects where I hate. I mean, HATE. A lot of the advice I see online about them.

We’re going to start with names, because that’s the one I have the biggest bee in my bonnet about.

And the advice I see that I hate the very most:

“Don’t go with anything TOO funny-sounding.”

Funny sounding to whom, asshole?

There are a lot of different languages in the world, a lot of different dialects, a lot of different pronunciations, even regionally in the same country, for the same words. If you name a character Xilx, it looks pretty odd to an American, but there might be somewhere in Estonia where Xlix is actually pretty easy to pronounce, and really similar to a common name.

Here’s my thing, though. If you name a character Xlix, and you passionately want people to pronounce it Thomas, be prepared for no one to know how to pronounce it, ever. Whether you’re all right with that or not is up to you, but it’s just how it’s going to be. You’re writing in English, and native English speakers aren’t too familiar with Xlixian pronunciation. If you MUST spell it X-I-L-X and pronounce it T-H-O-M-A-S, you have two options:

1) Make sure that never, ever actually matters in the course of the story, or:
2) Write a scene detailing the pronunciation INTO the story. You know, something like this:

“Xlix Morton,” the Lector called, peering down at his name on the bottom of the scroll.

Xlix shuddered, as he did every time someone pronounced his name. Zlicks, usually, or the even more awkward Zliz. And who could blame them?

It was a horrible sound, like a sneeze through several layers of snot. Like flies buzzing, landing on somebody’s carcass. Had it not been so horrible, Xlix might have gone his whole adult life allowing people to mispronounce his name. Because, of course, this was unfailingly the conversation that followed:

“Actually, sir,” Xlix said. “It’s pronounced Thomas.”

The Lector’s lips compressed into a flesh-colored thread. “You’re putting me on,” he said. “How d’you get ‘Thomas’ out of that?”

And there it was. Unwillingly–furiously–Xlix’s mouth formed the nonsense words his mother had given him, every time he cried about it, every time he complained, every time he tried to stay home on the first day of school, knowing the conversation that was soon to follow:

“All the letters are silent,” Xlix said, hating himself. “And there are a bunch of letters added in.”

Poor Xlix, right? If a name’s that different from its apparent pronunciation, there’s a story behind it. A story, undoubtedly, full of hatred and embarrassment. And your readers should know that story–otherwise, they’re missing a key ingredient in your narrator’s character. Why is ‘Xlix’ pronounced ‘Thomas’? Is his mother from another planet, where names are crafted in writing for aesthetics, but pronounced however you please? Did his mother tell him that’s how his name was spelled as a joke when he was little, and she hasn’t had the heart (or–been alive) to correct him?

So, unless there’s a story that needs to be told, try and write your funny names in a way that can be pronounced phonetically with little difficulty in the language you’re writing in. Jin’s full name, for instance, is Evinanjin–which looks a little funny, sure, but you can sound it out and get close enough to know who I’m talking about.

There are some occasions, however, where I think unpronouncable names are just fine. An unpronouncable name can, in fact, signify alienness, or otherworldliness: a magic spell, for instance, might be full of unpronouncable words, or the name of an alien dimension. In these cases, the very unpronouncability of the words puts space between the reader and the name–and you WANT space. You WANT mystery. So maybe that’s okay. In my new novel, Little Bird (which is coming out in less than a month, by the way), the force of evil over the river Darking is called the d’r’j inaj. Why? Because I want it to be a secretive thing, mysterious, terrible. Something the western part of Aurian and Jin’s world is unfamiliar with: therefore, they can’t bloody well pronounce it, and neither can you. (Though, if you want to: dah-raj inaj is how I do it (the raj being pronounced the same way as the British one, the inaj rhyming).

But here’s the thing. If you have one alien from planet Zth named Arrlx, and one named Bthw, you can’t also have one named Joseph. Or, if you do, there needs to be a reason for it–maybe they’re from different continents?

Names create feeling and background, and you have to stay consistent with them, especially in fantasy. Think about it as relative to Earth: you know Mandy James is probably a girl from an English-speaking nation. Jimena Gonzalez, on the other hand, is probably Hispanic. Soobin Kim is probably Korean. Fumiko Nakamura is probably Japanese. Or, if that doesn’t help, picture the five people with these last names:

1) Sarkisian
2) Filipov
3) Chen
4) Knudsen
5) Giordano

Very different pictures, eh? No, you’re not being racist. You just assume, given context, that Mr. (Miss?) Chen up there is probably Chinese–and if he’s not (maybe he’s adopted? Maybe his family moved to Denmark when he was a little boy, so he’s actually a Danish citizen? Maybe she married a Chinese man?) there needs to be a reason.

The same in your fantasy world, please. Xlxtr and Brian can’t share a state of origin with no good reason. And you can use those names to serve as a quick indicator for personal appearance if you’ve kept them consistent, just like Chen quickly indicates a person of Chinese origin, or Knudsen a person of Norwegian.

So, to recap: make your names as funny as you damn well please. People are reading, after all, and not reciting in front of a critical audience. While you might not want to make a name superlong, just because you have to keep typing it over and over again for the rest of your novel, no one other than a hideous uneducated hick-creature is going to stop reading your book because the names look funny. However,

1) Keep your names consistent with place and physical features, and:
2) Make sure they aren’t TOO similar. If your main characters are Jennifer and Jinnever, that’s going to cause some people some trouble, and rightfully so.

A last note, before we commence part dos:

Y’know who the king of difficult-to-pronounce fantasy names was? JRR Motherfucking Tolkien. That’s right. Anyone remember Maedhros? He was the eldest son of Feanor, in the Silmarillion?

No? I’m the biggest geek in the goddamn room? Okay. Anyway.

That name is pronounced MY-throse.

Not shitting you.

So, case in point. You can be successful and use cray pronunciation. When I found that out, I didn’t throw my book across the room and regret ever finding out what happened with those damn Silmarils. I just went: “oh. Wow.” And went on with my day.

7 thoughts on “How to Name Things in Fantasy

  1. I swear, sometimes good names are the hardest to come up with. I told you I accidentally named a character Steve Martin, right? D’oh! That wasn’t even in a fantasy story. And it wasn’t my worst mistake at naming characters, either!

    1. Oh man, I do that stuff too. I had a character I gave the last name of Belacqua to, thinking I was being sooo original and cool…didn’t realize for the longest time that I had indeed come up with that name because I’d HEARD it somewhere before. It took a friend asking me, innocently, if my story was Golden Compass fanfiction for me to realize the main character of that book is Lyra Belacqua, and I was an unintentional plagiarizer. Much finding and replacing happened. D’oh.

  2. This is excellent, I totally concur, except that I want to add that Maedhros is pronounced my-thros where the th is the one found in the word ‘this’ as opposed to the th found in ‘thing’.

    1. I see you’ve been reading the Silmarillion glossary as well, good sir. 😛

      I’ve gotta be honest, I actually LOVED the Silmarillion. Elves n’ things! History! Numenor! Feanor! Who’s like my favorite person in Middle Earth! Dear god, I can’t stop using exclamation points!

      1. I think the Silmarillion is my favorite part of the Lord of The Rings/Hobbit. I actually went out and started reading up on Tolkien’s Elvish languages after the first time through that book. Such good stuff.

  3. One of my most recent character creations was a Dr Gert Hoenenbacker. That was a pig of a name to keep typing. And I’m always spelling the name Ransahlhof wrong.

    The closest I’ve come to creating a complex fantasy character name was Ystirria, a very violent succubus from the same novel. Writing an accompanying almanac for your novel means you can get all clever with phonetic descriptions in brackets like a proper academic text book. Makes you look like a clever dick.

    1. Hoenenbacker is like the word ‘banana’. When do you stop adding ‘na’s to ‘banananana’? When do you stop adding ‘en’s to ‘Hoenenbacker’? Hoenenenen. Hoen. Christ, I’m having trouble just looking at it.

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