On writing

More on character names

I recently read Lynn Flewelling’s Tamir Triad (The Bone Doll’s Twin, Hidden Warrior and The Oracle’s Queen).

My absolute favourite character was Tharin, the protagonist’s (Tamir’s) father’s best friend. The man who looked after Tamir when she was a child, and stayed with her as she grew into adulthood.

Now, here is the silly thing. Even though I adored Tharin as a character, I couldn’t get his name straight for the first two and a half books.

Even as I sat down to write this blog I still had to stop and think. “Is it Tamil? No. Damir? No. Thamir? No, not that either. Damn, I have to go back to the book again to get his name. Tharin. That’s right, it was Tharin.”

This is my favourite character in a series I liked enough to read in one sitting.

He wasn’t a point-of-view character, but he was a major minor character. I should have been able to remember his name. Unfortunately, I got bogged down with all the names in the book with combinations of T, M, N and R in them (Tamir, Tobin, Tharin). They all blended together.

Fantasy and science fiction writers often come up with weird names to make the characters sound more exotic, but there are a lot of other things we do to names that confuse the reader too.

One thing you are often taught in the ‘how to write fantasy’ courses is to make names of people of the same race or tribe similar, to give a sense of history and place. Thus in Lord of the Rings you have Elrond, Glorfindel, Arwen and Galadriel, all elves, all with L, N and D sounds in their names.

Lynn Flewelling had a lot of characters whose name started with T or A.

In her defence, Ms Flewelling could well argue that Tharin wasn’t a major character. That the main characters were clearly delineated —Tamir/Tobin, Ki and Arkoniel. Can’t complain about names there.

Now, I don’t say that you should deliberately go out of your way to give your characters wildly different names just so the readers can tell them apart. There does have to be resonance with names, and a language and a people. And even though it does make the story more confusing to the reader, it’s not the worst naming sin of all.

One of the worst, in my opinion, is the word you use as a name that has a totally unrelated meaning, particularly when you know what that meaning is.

Rainbow is an old story of ours, sitting on the PC waiting to be rewritten. It has a fantastic premise and some great characters (our opinion, of course). I was learning German when we wrote the original draft, and I named one of the characters ‘Tur’. Tur means door in German. Tur is a major minor character, about the same importance to Rainbow as Tharin is to the Tamir Triad. Anyone who knows German is going to say, “What? They called this guy Door,” and they’re going to be distracted throughout, just by the name.

We have named other characters for physical objects—River, Summer and Crystal in Potion. This was deliberate and the reader will judge whether it works or not. Sometimes names like this work, sometimes they don’t. It works brilliantly, for example, in Robin Hobb’s Assassin/Tawny Man series. I cannot imagine The Fool or Dutiful as anyone else.

Potion had a long gestation period. In between, the Phoenix siblings started acting. Now all anyone ever says is, “I know where you got those names.”

Needless to say, when we re-write Rainbow, Tur won’t be there.

Another major name blooper we have fixed, sort of, is Braycarlia, in Potion. He started off as Bradycardia, just because we liked the sound of the word. We knew what it meant, but never thought that anyone else would pick it up. Sent it off to Critters and the first comment that came back, “By the way, are you aware that the word ‘bradycardia’ means a really slow heartbeart?” After a couple of comments like these we changed the name to “Braycarlia”, which still has the same rhythm but doesn’t mean anything, so far as we know.

Potion is the first novel we completed enough to be a real novel. Many of the names here are the more traditional made-up names so common in fantasy. We won’t do that in future novels.

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