How Naming Conventions Work:
A Quick Look at Novels of the Fantastic
A total stranger asked a group of writers about naming practices in fantasy fiction recently. We all had different answers concerning what can be done and what should be done. I wondered, “What is actually being done?” Some people assume that naming conventions emerge from William Morris or J.R.R. Tolkien or Lord Dunsany or Hope Mirrlees, but in reality naming conventions are varied and they change over time and according to the style of novel. When I wondered “What is actually being done?” I was curious about the variations and the choices at this very moment and how they add to the book or make it harder to read. If I take a random pile of authors (by a ‘random pile of authors,’ I obviously mean ‘the rather interesting pile of review books that I haven’t yet found an excuse to read’) and look at them and see what naming conventions work and why it works for that writer, it might be fun. It also might help explain why some fantasy novels drag us into a strange world and keep us there and some keep sending us into the kitchen in search of coffee.
I’ll write up each book as I read it and talk about the naming practices of that author in that book (or, in a couple of cases, series of books) and bring it all together at the end. If you’re just interested in the big picture, then, skip to the end, but if you’re interested in the journey and the books, then keep reading. My aim is, of course, to make your life more interesting.
Jon Sprunk’s Shadow’s Master is the last book in a trilogy. One of the reasons I loved the first book was its fausse Elizabethan sense, and the names reflected this. Sprunk’s series is set in a fantasy universe that’s absolutely not ours. The second, and now this, the third volume takes us further away from a world like ours and loses some of that Elizabethan feel. Part of this is due to the naming practices Sprunk adopts.
Some of the names (Balaam, Malig, Caim) have Hebraic antecedents and suggest a single culture of origin. They are, however combined with names like Aemon, which has a distinctively Celtic origin. In a pseudo-Elizabethan world, this worked because of the Tudor religious sense (and its enthusiasm for Hebrew) and because of the actual cultural mix in the real Tudor England. In this volume about Caim’s adventures, however, it becomes clearer that this is not a world we recognise. The names, therefore, became a hindrance where they were initially a help.
It’s important that readers not stop long enough to question to naming patterns in a novel. I stopped to consider at far too regular intervals with Shadow’s Master and each time I stopped, I lost the wonderful urgency Sprunk’s writing often contains. The biggest pause came when I encountered ‘Hale saints Day’ ‑ this name may well be derived from All Saints’ Day, but I can’t see how. I wanted to know its cultural purpose and why there was no apostrophe. I wanted to know what decisions Sprunk had made to create it, for it stood out on the page and distracted me from the story. It was just an indication of a calendar date, but it was one that worked against my reading of the tale.
Unless a reader can accept the names as given, in other words, the names can actually subtract from an otherwise excellent work. Sprunk’s naming conventions are close to his cultural constructs, but not quite close enough, and so they didn’t enrich his narrative as they might have.
Entirely invented worlds are the hardest to find good naming systems for. Worlds we already know are easier. Mike Resnick is in the middle of a series of novels he (or his publisher) call the ‘Weird West.’ They start with our universe, which makes his writing quite a different proposition to Sprunk’s. They are partly steampunk, partly alternate history, partly pure fantasy. The Doctor and the Kid is one of this series, and is about how Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid resolved whatever they needed to resolve.
Because the novel has a clear historical basis and a cast that largely existed and have been extensively written about in our world, the names have to have strong connections in US history for it to work. Alternate history starts with real people, real places or real events (or all three) and a steampunk or warped universe also starts with at least a semblance of familiarity. Resnick does this. His USA is different to ours (quite different, in many ways) but the names are the same. The names we know from our own history—Dr John Holliday, Kathryn Elder, Thomas Alva Edison, Oscar Wilde—are crucial to Resnick’s grounding of the narrative and to the success of his strange West. They and the almost pre-packaged (mix events, add characters, add violence and stir) Old West environment provide the narrative just enough reality or familiarity so that the reader can enter Resnick’s carnival of strangeness.
The illusion is slender. Oscar Wilde is exceedingly unlikely to have said, “I can’t tell if you’re kidding or not.” In other words, the names are about the only solid ground we get: the rest is popular history turned into popular novel. This may well be why Resnick is so very careful with his naming conventions.
If he had been a bit more careful with his dialogue, the illusion would have been deeper. Oscar Wilde’s brief appearance in particular, shatters the reality of the novel. His voice is too well-known and too distinctive to be replaced with such a commonplace speech. Speech is, however, not part of the naming convention. Resnick’s choice of names is sensible and works well with his type of novel.
Erin Hoffman has developed a complex fantasy/science fiction world (the boundaries blur somewhat) for her series The Chaos Knight. The story covers more than one country and more than one historical period. The core character is Vidarian Rulorat and the second volume Lance of Earth and Sky follows his adventures after a series of unthinkable events have happened.
The naming systems in Hoffman’s book are particularly interesting. Because of the grand panorama that makes this novel (and its predecessor) and the very few pages used to tell the story (at 315 pages, it’s a slender epic fantasy) the names used are crucial in establishing different cultural and racial backgrounds. Unless Hoffman is to announce each time a gryphon appears or give immense detail about clothes or customs each time a new set of characters appears (which she does not) the names are the main tool for the reader to keep societies distinct. The naming conventions in Lance of Earth and Sky, therefore, are key to the reader’s capacity to move from character to character and to follow the politics.
The book is partly filed with created fantasy names and names derived from our world. This means my mind was jumping back and forth, trying to work out why. It distracted my attention in the first book and it has done so again in the second. There is Altair and Ariadel and Ruby. Marcelle and Bell-Maritai come from the same country, which is confusing (for Marcelle is a common French name and Bell-Maritai isn’t).
This mix of names ought to have been a killer problem in a novel this size, but it wasn’t. As I read, patterns began to emerge. The patterns weren’t linguistically consistent and the purist in me rebelled throughout, but they made broad sense of the cultures.
If broad sense is sufficient to communicate culture for a reader, then Hoffman’s naming system works. If a spattering of actual names from our reality diminishes the reality of the fantasy world for the reader (as it did for me) then this was a bad decision. This is the essential issue with mixing the familiar with the unfamiliar: some readers will recognise the familiar and expect to recognise the whole. Or a reader will group familiar names with familiar and unfamiliar with unfamiliar and the actual countries and cultures and peoples in the novel will be overlaid by a different perception of the world.
Narrelle M Harris’ Walking Shadows is a vampire novel. Set in contemporary Melbourne, the vampire storyline is the hook on which the story of a suburban adult friendship is based. Gary Hooper is a vampire and Lissa Wilson a librarian. Gary turns to Lissa for help when things go disastrously wrong in his circle of vampires. In the meantime, Lissa thinks she might have found romance.
The naming system reflects the normalcy of the underlying setting. Harris uses this normalcy partly to make the shocking feel more real, and partly because the core of the novel really is the story of two interesting human beings, one of whom just happens to be undead. The names reflect the ethnic mix that makes Melbourne and are an important tool in Harris’ grounding of the narrative. Giorgio, Magdalene, Mundy: all of these might be vampire names, but they are also names that belong to Melbourne’s every day. Since one of the crucial features of Harris’ series is the mundane reality in which strangeness happens, this is a very solid method of reassuring the reader while providing a story that has death and embarrassment and kisses in the rain.
A.K. Wrox is a partnership of Kylie Fox and Amanda Wrangles. Their book, Arabella Candellarbra and the Questy Thing to End All Questy Things wasn’t actually in my review book pile. It was in the pile I bought at a science fiction convention, as was the other Clan Destine title. It fitted my needs for this article, however, for it’s a straight spoof of quest fantasies, fitting alongside books such as Bored of the Rings and I had none other like that in my piles of recent publications.
The names reflect the nature of the book, being ordinary names used with humorous intent, or strange combinations of names (like that of the titular heroine) also used for humorous intent. Basically, Wrox took names that fitted Australian (and quite possibly others’) preconceptions of what fantasy names ought to be, and then mocked them. For instance, Mother Nature became Mother Nature, Father Time and Aunt In-Between. In particular, they reference current pop culture, for example Sally-Ann Davis is “the fearsome sorceress of the Scooby Mountains.”
In terms of a single world culture the names are a nonsense, but they work nicely in the context of the book. This context only extends as far as the reader’s understanding of the joke. If a reader hasn’t read very widely and is not a fan of cinema or cartoon or television or a thousand other stories the naming system is going to look daft. In fact, the whole novel will look daft, for it’s a parody and the success of parodies depend heavily on prior knowledge. In fact, it’s the perfect example of why names work in one context and will completely fail in another, and also why the context of the story must be understood in order for the naming system to be effective.
The conventions used by writers tell one a lot about the writer. They also provide a way into the book or out of it for readers. Where the naming practices in the book are consistent with the style of the novel and the cultures within the novel are demarcated clearly, the names in a novel can serve to reinforce the reading experience and make it richer and more complete.
Books mentioned in this column:
Arrabella Candellarbra & the Questy Thing to End all Questy Things, by A.K. Wrox (Clan Destine Press, 2011)
The Doctor and the Kid, by Mike Resnick (Pyr, 2011)
Lance of Earth and Sky, by Erin Hoffman (Pyr, 2012)
Shadow’s Master, by Jon Sprunk (Pyr, 2012)
Walking Shadows, by Narrelle M. Harris (Clan Destine Press, 2012)
Gillian Polack is based in Canberra, Australia. She is mainly a writer, editor and educator. Her most recent print publications are a novel (Life through Cellophane, Eneit Press, 2009), an anthology (Masques, CSfG Publishing, 2009, co-edited with Scott Hopkins), two short stories and a slew of articles. Her newest anthology is Baggage, published by Eneit Press (2010).One of her short stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award a long time ago, and three have (more recently) been listed as recommended reading in international lists of world's best fantasy and science fiction short stories. She received a Macquarie Bank Fellowship and a Blue Mountains Fellowship to work on novels at Varuna, an Australian writers' residence in the Blue Mountains. Gillian has a doctorate in Medieval history from the University of Sydney. She researches food history and also the Middle Ages, pulls the writing of others to pieces, is fascinated by almost everything, cooks and etc. Currently she explains 'etc' as including Arthuriana, emotional cruelty to ants, and learning how not to be ill. She is the proud owner of some very pretty fans, a disarticulated skull named Perceval, and 6,000 books. Contact Gillian.