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Fantasy names: a rant.

So, one of the charges often levelled at fantasy is that it's full of polysyllabic names and that that's totally unrealistic. Because, y'know, in the Real World (TM), everyone is called Bob or Sue. Just everyone.
This, with respect (okay, with minimal respect) is nonsense. The Real World is full of all sorts of names and naming customs. And, frankly, as a complaint, it's riddled with entitlement. I, the reader, want everything to be easy for me and familiar to me. I don't want to face difference. It's scary.
Bollocks to that. Language -- language in its widest sense, meaning all those wonderful, contradictory, baffling, eloquent, elegant, fluid, magical, changeable, ways in which we communicate and miscommunicate with one another -- is one of our greatest gifts and challenges and tools. Languages are rich and nuanced and redolent and textured. Language is one of our greatest adventures.
And I, for one, want to go on those adventures. I don't want to read about worlds that are exactly like mine, to see only my own practices and expectations and ideas mirrored. I want to be shocked and scared, challenged and surprised, baffled, frustrated, delighted, awakened, expanded. I want to learn.
And I don't learn in a landscape where everyone is limited by one set of rules, where it's only 'realistic' for characters to be called Boyon and Girla (or, for daring writing, Boyol and Girlie). That isn't the world I live in now, for heaven's sake.
Reality check. Not everyone has a name like Bob or Sue. Even within my own white British culture, I know or know of Elizabeths and Bartholemews, Susannahs and Benedicts, Annabels and Julians. Not all of them are Liz or Bart, Sue or Ben, Anne or Jules, either. And if we lift those cultural blinkers, the wider world has and uses proudly, happily, longer names every single day. Saraswati. Paradorn. Ssima Be-Ping. Hideyoshi. Hitomi. Bronislav. Go and look at Thai names, or Indian ones, or even Irish. Conchubhair. Mael-Sechlainn. Derbhorgaill. We are not all white and Germanic. We are not all uniform, nor should we be.
And I won't fit my characters with the strait-jacket of lazy (culturally privileged?) reader expectation. Most of the names I use derive from Old French, Middle English and Welsh. Some of those are short -- Aude, Jehan. Some of them aren't -- Thiercelin, Gracielis.
Name vary, people. Names and naming conventions differ with time, with culture. Some times and cultures allow for abbreviations or pet names -- Thierry, Sue, Pinky. Some add syllables to indicate intimacy or respect -- Ryouga-kun, Mo-Colum. My characters don't live in a world defined by my junior school, which was in a white-bread small village. They don't have to end with the suffixes that make my culture-mates feel comforted. They aren't me. They aren't Jane-from-Basingstoke or Jack-from-Poughkeepsie, either. If I want to read about Jane and Jack, Ill buy a book set in those sort of places. If I find Jane in Fantasyland, her writer needs to convince me that Jane is a natural fit in that place -- and that that place is real in itself and not just Basingstoke with dragons. (Actually, Basingstoke with dragons might be an improvement. But you know what I mean.)
When William Morris made his translations of Old Norse sagas, he adapted the female names he found in them so that they ended in -a, enforcing Latin grammatical practice and (in part) naming practices on 12th century Scandinavia. It looks and sounds wrong. Like 19th century contemporaries who, following the fashion for Anglo-Saxon revivals, gave their daughters Old English names (Ethelberta), he was blinkered by his own cultural expectations.
Fantasy needs to be bigger than that. So, don't go telling me I have to stick to Boyon and Girla. This world I write about is not the world right outside your door. The Real World is bigger than your street. And so should fantasy be.

Comments

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lil_shepherd
Jan. 14th, 2011 11:58 am (UTC)
I agree entirely.

Yet, at Milford a couple of years back, the main complaint about the first two chapters (now chapters 1 and 3) of the current project, was that my hero was named Gscalir (Calir for short) and they didn't know how they were supposed to pronounce it. I was advised to change it. I haven't yet, but it is under consideration...
la_marquise_de_
Jan. 14th, 2011 12:14 pm (UTC)
Pronunciation is another set of issues and I do sort of understand how people need help there. (I like Gscalir, but then I'm used to unusual names, being a Celticist.) I will probably make some spelling changes in Grass King's names because I spelt them in Pinyin, which was, frankly, not helpful of me.
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bellinghman
Jan. 14th, 2011 12:01 pm (UTC)
Donaldson's Lord Kevin?

In yesterday's BBC article about uncommon 'Christian' names (which went on about the Biblical names one doesn't come across), one of the 10 examples listed was that of my sister. So even in a small Oxfordshire village in the early 1960s, one might have come across names you might not expect.
la_marquise_de_
Jan. 14th, 2011 12:12 pm (UTC)
Oh, don't get me started on inappropriate or mismatched names. Though, to be fair to SRD, 'Kevin' has different cultural baggage in the US to the UK.
And yes on uncommon names. My grandmother was a Hepzibah.
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la_marquise_de_
Jan. 14th, 2011 12:39 pm (UTC)
I was thinking about Aztec names when I started this post, indeed, along with Indian ones.
ms_cataclysm
Jan. 14th, 2011 12:07 pm (UTC)
Speaking as a reader, I find that it's the little things which snag annoyingly and prevent suspension of disbelief.

I have no problem with FTL travel but struggle with an alian called Janet who wears a girdle under her space suit and has the aspirations of a 1950s housewife .

Magic and dragons are no problem but what is a brothel keeper called Deejay doing in the middle?

Again, please feel free to replace Queen Victoria by an immortal cyborg ruling 1996 Britain- that's inventive and fun. But why make your poor Holmesian hero eat griddled eggs and hash browns for breakfast, put modern American slang in his mouth and hang "drapes" at his windows?

A lot of the charm in reading about other people's worlds is in puzzling out the details and clues as to how the world works.
la_marquise_de_
Jan. 14th, 2011 12:14 pm (UTC)
Yes, this kind of thing infuriates me, too.
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chickenfeet2003
Jan. 14th, 2011 12:28 pm (UTC)
I've never been to Basingstoke but I'm fairly sure dragons would be an improvement.

The names thing is an interesting one. Here in Toronto, sometimes said to be the world's most multicultural city, people with names that are difficult for English speakers routinely shorten them or just adopt a different name when speaking English.
la_marquise_de_
Jan. 14th, 2011 12:37 pm (UTC)
I've seen that in Hong Kong, too. It's a shame really: English speakers can and should try harder to adapt (imho, anyway).
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woolymonkey
Jan. 14th, 2011 12:28 pm (UTC)
It's not just fantasy! In Surrey, I used to get sick of primary school mums complaining about characters in the learn-to-read books with foreign names (Aneena and Nadim, so nice and phonetic). "It's so hard and why would they need to know names like that?" Um, well, because maybe they might leave the village one day and meet new people? (Or even go to the village post office, actually.)

As someone who grew up with a 'difficult' foreign name, I can't get enough of people being encouraged to go beyond the safe and familiar, not just for adventures, but because it's a normal part of life to encounter things you might not have met before. At least, I hope it is.
la_marquise_de_
Jan. 14th, 2011 12:40 pm (UTC)
Oh, good grief. Those mothers...
Coffee later?
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sleigh
Jan. 14th, 2011 12:42 pm (UTC)
Yes. Well said!
alexmc
Jan. 14th, 2011 01:31 pm (UTC)
I wonder whether you are arguing against a straw man. Do people really complain about fantasy names because they are foreign to them? Or is it more because they are impossible to pronounce, remember or recognise.

With movies I rarely remember character's names - going mostly by their appearance and role. I cope fine with the visuals.

With fiction books I usually just remember the shape of the name rather than the strict pronounciation. I might not even care whether I can pronounce a name. I am reasonably multicultural in that I am familiar with some foreign culture's names being different to my "home" culture. (eg I find greek names easy to understand and remember: "Mavropoulous" is "blackbird" for example. )



I have thought about this issue recently reading a specific form of fantasy : the Megatokyo web comic. The setting is a blend of real life Tokyo and a fantasy anime/manga inspired one.

Firstly we have honorifics: "-san" and such like to signify the relationship between characters. You might want to do something similar in your fantasy world but for god's sake be careful. I am not a member of your culture so it is going to be difficult for me as a western reader to understand.

There are hardly any western christian names in the whole thing. The token American (who can't speak any Japanese) is called "Largo". The other Americans (I assume) are called "Ed" and "Dom". Everyone else has their own Japanese names which sound authentic.

HOWEVER authenticism can go too far. The writer of Megatokyo often uses multiple names for characters - nicknames, formal names, stage names, short names and so on. This may be realistic but I find it bloody confusing.

So, my vote is, by all means make up a culture which has (a number of) variant naming styles different to our own, but please remember your readers are only human. If they find it too difficult to follow your books then they will put them down unfinished.

la_marquise_de_
Jan. 14th, 2011 03:41 pm (UTC)
I take your point, but one of the things that's going on this expectation of being catered for and made comfortable, which is more available to members of some cultures than to others. The complaint of 'lack of realism' is tied to a definition of reality as it's experienced by the speaker -- and the associated demand is that fantasy realities conform to their expectations and norms.
Now, some of this is also down to personality. I love to learn new languages and structures, and I revel in things like honorifics and nicknames: they don't confuse me (this may in part be that, as a mediaevalist, I'm used to names and so on that aren't standard to my daily life). I use them sparingly in my fiction, because I don't want reading to be a chore. However, I reject the notion that I *have* to conform to the rules of a western -- and quite US, at that -- definition of realism in order to create a convincing world.
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sartorias
Jan. 14th, 2011 01:52 pm (UTC)
Boy is that for sure!

And also, Sue can be Susan to her mom, Sue to her friends, Susu to her little sister, Honey to her significant other, Blake to her co-workers, and so on.
la_marquise_de_
Jan. 14th, 2011 03:42 pm (UTC)
And SusieQ to her online friends. Exactly.
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barry_king
Jan. 14th, 2011 02:10 pm (UTC)
Hear, hear! *claps*
saare_snowqueen
Jan. 14th, 2011 02:19 pm (UTC)
I once had one of my Good Bishop Probus stories rejected because of the silly names.
Ahem, Probus was a real general in the Roman army who was elected Emperor of the empire by his troops, albeit, in the period when the empire was crumbling, still........... Sometimes you can't win
la_marquise_de_
Jan. 14th, 2011 03:54 pm (UTC)
Oh, good grief. You would think after Tolkien people might realise that there are many historic names which look odd to us now, but which are perfectly respectable. Like Pippin and Frodo. And Probus.
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green_knight
Jan. 14th, 2011 02:26 pm (UTC)
I've ranted about this before, but my rule of thumb is that if your names are less varied than the homecounties village I live in, I cannot keep up my suspension of disbelief.

As a rule of thumb, putting down books in which the characters are named Karl, Tom, or Fred works for me; a paucity of imagination and research in respect to names tends to spread to history and technology and a lack of consideration of consequences. (If this changes... what else is different about their world?)

I have one character named Val (short for Valendon, he's male), and a Kira (short for Askira)- once you start shortening names, you'll arrive at familiar ones at some point; but that should be the exception, not the rule.
la_marquise_de_
Jan. 14th, 2011 03:54 pm (UTC)
I like that rule!
(Deleted comment)
la_marquise_de_
Jan. 14th, 2011 03:56 pm (UTC)
I am right with you on the need for consistency with the world and its cultures -- that's one of the places where Tolkien set us a very high standard. I can't deal with fantasies where everyone in the whole world speaks the same language, and where people from the same village and background are called Sukey. Qskilikh and P'op'it.
shweta_narayan
Jan. 14th, 2011 04:20 pm (UTC)
*cheers*
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