Friday 12 March 2010

How to Choose Names for Fantasy Fiction

More fun!

This is an interesting little article, even if it's all kinda obvious. Of course, poor Val Kolavin (reviewer of M/M gay romance fiction, as it happens: didn't know reviewers got quite that specific) doesn't know a lot about Conan.

Cliché #1: The One-Word Name. The one-word name often carries an identifying label: Conan the Barbarian. Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Taran of Caer Dalben from The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander.

This naming tradition is one of the most worn-out tropes in fantasy. I'm guessing it comes from the Scandinavian custom (still practiced in Iceland) of not using surnames. Instead, a baby receives a given name plus either a descriptive trait or a patronymic (a name based on one's father's given name).

Here is an Icelandic name: Erik the Red (the guy who gave Greenland its misleading name). I like his patronymic (Erik Thorvaldsson) better because it sounds more like a "real" name to me: that is, a given name plus surname.

A name like Conan the Barbarian implies that the world is so sparsely populated that people only need one given name plus a descriptive trait. To be fair to Conan's creator Robert E. Howard, he based Conan's people upon a prehistoric tribe [2] [3] when maybe the world really was that small – at least region to region. But most fantasy is set in populous, quasi-medieval times in which a one-word name seems unrealistic and quaint.

I guess being the only Cimmerian for hundreds of miles isn't enough, eh? Calling himself Conan is usually enough, or at most, Conan of Cimmeria.

Still, it raises an interesting question: there are three Amalrics in the Conan stories. This led to a little confusion among fans, though not too much. I doubt the two Nemedian Amalrics are the same character. Still, I'd wager that it isn't their full names. We have examples of both Aquilonians and Nemedians with surnames: Servius Gallanus, Emilius Scavonus, Aztrias Petanius. I'd wager the Amalric from "Tombalku"'s full name would be Amalric Valerus, since he's from the House of Valerus. The other two Amalrics would presumably also have houses to which they belonged.

Still, it's nice to see someone mention the fact that Cimmerians were a real people, even if Val clearly hasn't read much, if any, Robert E. Howard.


  1. It never ceases to amaze me how, even with all the glorious of the instantaneous information the Internet provides.. 98% of it for free even.. that people can still get stuff wrong so often.

    Its got to be sheer laziness.. that is the only explanation.

  2. That's pretty much my thinking. Then again, this might've been a page from before the time of Wikipedia, but even so.

  3. Frankly, I find the whole article sorta stupid. Daenerys Targaryen sounds like a porn star name? Come on. Celtic names are too complicated and should not be used? How then comes it there are so many popular books with Celtic names?

    Place name denominations like Connan the Cimmerian have been used in history. There is one Roderick the Spaniard / Roderick from Spain on King Edward's II chamber rolls, for example. Seems to have worked perfectly well in the 14th century.

  4. In the US anyway, publishers make a point of stating that " Celtic Sells " .. People in the US who happen to be Scots/Irish.. even if its 200 years distant and so diluted with English, German, Native American, French Huguenot.. They seem to buy an inordinate amount of " Celtic " stuff.. and its even led to the emergence of the " Highland games " being ported to more and more US states every year.. and the Ubiquitous " Celtic Pub " which has no resemblance to even the meanest pub I went into in well.. basically anywhere in the UK at all.

    I personally feel its all part of the marketing campaign to promote St. Patrick's day as a more inclusive holiday..

    I've mentioned all of this to get to my point. Celtic Names, are Paddy, O'brian, and the people come in two types, Black Irish or Fiery Redhead etc etc etc. Welsh, Breton, Mannish and Cornish people are almost never included in the Celtic party in the US.

    I dunno exactly how old this article is, but that could explain some of there dislike of names.

    However, Cormac is making a bit of a comeback in the US boys names lists due mostly to the author Cormac Macarthy having like 4 books on Oprah's book club.

  5. Hm, we have Katherine Kurtz' Deryni series, and Katharine Kerr's Deverry series, both based on a rather Welsh version of Celtic, we have tons of Arthurian stuff in all shades of Celtic, S.L. Farrell's Cloudmage trilogy (haven't read that one so I'm not sure what Celtic version), and there's more. I'm just too lazy to check the shelves in the other room right now. :)

    I'm not sure there's such a big difference between US and UK when it comes to Celtic Fantasy.

    Oh, and there's an Irish Pub in my town which sells Guiness and Kilkenny, among other stuff. :)

  6. Oh sure, but what I meant with " Celtic Sells " wasn't " Celtic Fantasy " what I did mean is that stuff thats Green and says " Celtic " on the front sells really well in the US.

    I've read a few Welsh oriented Fantasies, I really like Evangiline Walton's Re-telling of the Mabinogion. And I've liked the few Katherine Kurtz books I've read so far.

    Celtic Pubs here tend to have Guinness in Bottles and Jameson and then standard Bar food.. Pizza Shooters, Shrimp Poppers and Extreme Fajitas! that sort of stuff..

    I just was trying to point out that in the US, Welsh dosen't typically equate to "Celtic". And thus Welsh names are "Weird".

  7. Heh, our Guiness comes from the barrel, and they sell Irish Stew - or something like that. No pizza.

  8. Daenerys Targaryen doesn't sound like any porn name I've ever heard, though frankly, I haven't heard enough to make a decent judgement. It does sound far too complex and interesting than something like Jenna Jameson, Linda Lovelace, Marilyn Chambers, Veronica Hart... and that's all I know (I have no idea why I know only Jenna Jameson and three '70s actresses).

  9. it sounds more like an armenian surname...