Idly thinking about names and fantasy, specifically modern fantasy, and how they are chosen. Each era – by nature of simply being human – imagines that it is the most progressive, the most evolved, and the SFF scene is no exception. I find myself wondering if that’s really the case, or if we simply move with a shifting set of tastes and call that progress?
There’s a bit of a fashion at the moment for verisimilitude in medieval combat – or boasting of it, at least – and standing almost as counterpoint, modernisation of language. The line is still firmly drawn at “okay”, thanks to the very well known and peculiar etymology of the word, but the percussive “fuck” is simply too useful for us to cast it off. There was a wonderful tweet about Orcs in the film version of LOTR saying “menu”, implying Orcs have restaurants, but generally speaking modern idiom is given a pass on the basis that Orcish idiom would be impenetrable to humans and thus we are given a suitable translation.
Names in modern fantasy are one of the things I find fascinating. Mostly because I suck at thinking up names, and therefore every time I crack open someone else’s book it’s an exercise in how did they do this? but also because I am really interested in how they shape the world and the characters.
Proper Nouns – these crop up a lot, and it’s easy to understand why: they are resonant and immediate, and because of this they are a powerful tool for worldbuilding. It’s almost impossible for a reader to not see a place like The Iron Market or Gallows Hill in their minds eye the moment they read it, and we can move on to the action. Similarly, there’s no point in calling the character who binds himself in magical links to keep his power in check Gary Smith: you call him Chains and are saved the effort of having to remind the reader of them every other sentence. A great recent example, Noon in The Ninth Rain is called Fell-Noon, the prefix a constant reminder of her destructive capacity and an intimation of evil that is set in the reader’s mind and flipped to great effect when she eats a tomato, something mundane that is transformed into a moment of vulnerability and humanity.
Fantasy Names – still a staple of the genre (I recall bouncing *hard* off the word grolim in Eddings when I was a teen and going back to Tom Clancy for a few years), these form the opposite function to the Proper Noun. They are unlinked linguistically – the roots of words are unimportant, as long as the proto-languages that birthed them are close enough to one another – and they sound familiar without being recognisable. It’s likely you will know or have met a Ryan; Ryhalt, however, is a cipher. Free from all of your previous experience, the ideal fantasy gibberish name is both unique and memorable, turning the reader into a newly hatched duckling ready to imprint upon the character: heroic, but not so heroic as to be beyond the reader’s daydream reach; flawed, but not so broken as to make them a true villain.