Naming and spelling character names in alternative/fantasy worlds

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H7TM4N

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This topic was going through my mind for a while and I wondered what other writers preferred when it comes to naming characters.

Whether to use traditional common English spelling of character names, possibly making a fantasy story and characters feel more grounded/real; alternative English spellings or spellings used in other languages, possibly adding to the feel that this world is not a direct copy of common English-speaking culture; or creating entirely new (unique) names for characters, balancing the fact that they have to be believable, practical and pronounceable names while doubling down on the sense of a fantasy world by using "fantasy" character names.

What are your thoughts when it comes to naming characters, and the possible up- and downsides of different methods? Especially, when it comes to historical use of names to give a historical- rather than a modern feel to a fantasy setting while at the same time recognizing that a lot of modern names have been in use for ages.
 

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Names in a fantasy story are a function of the world-building. There are many scenarios where using recognizable common names (English or otherwise) may be perfectly appropriate. There are others where they would be jarring -- in a secondary world where the cultures are not derived from our world and there is no other reason to deliberately make a direct connection for the reader, using ordinary English names seems to me at least a little lazy and misleading, and possibly a sign that the writer has failed to thoroughly think through the way their world works.

On the other hand, in a historical context I don't think there's any requirement that the author should use either the historically-appropriate or the modern version of a name. Mahaut and Maud are both acceptable. The choice of Chlodowech or Clovis or Louis is more significant and, again, speaks to the world building -- each version of the name tells the reader something different, and the writer needs to choose the one that say the right thing for the story.
 

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It's definitely a subject that depends on the story. If you're doing something semi-historical, then use time appropriate names. If you're going full frontal fantasy, you're going to have to base the names on the cultures that have arisen in your world.

There's are going to be different languages, Orcish names may not have the flowing, unnecessary vowel usage of Elven names. Or they might, I don't know, you do orcs and elves however you want.

Biggest thing I find, from a practical stand point, is to try and make sure your names come through on a pronunciation stand point. I have a friend writing a high fantasy book, and even she has a hard time with her MC's name.

You can get a little silly with one-off characters to show-case the language and culture behind the name, but with MC's I find that simpler is better.

Master Shioelengue of the Aalywin wood is going to be a name your reader with read, wrestle with, and likely forget while the much more reasonably named MC, Feoch of the Temper wood, will stick with them. They share some linguistic similarities to show they comes from similar, if not the same, culture, and both don't come off as blatant plagiarisms of real world names (at least form my perspective).
 

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One thing I liked about Game of Thrones (and I wasn't a big fan) was the names. Many names were similar to popular medieval names but slightly different, just as the world is close to medieval England but different (it's a riff on the War of the Roses). So you have Eddard, which is like Edward, who is nicknamed Ned, which was a period nickname for Edward. And you have Joffrey, close to Geoffrey, and Catelyn, close to Catherine. Some, like Robert and Jon, are directly English names from the period. Some are, of course, entirely made up. But I thought it was a good touch, to lend to the familiar-but-different vibe.

So, as others have said, it will depend on what vibe you want to convey and what your world is like. If your world isn't based on medieval England, then it would be super weird to have names that would be found in medieval England.
 

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This is a perfect thread for the SF & F subforum; I'm moving it there.
 

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I'm writing a story in alternate Russia and I've been using actual Russian names as well as Russian-esque names created by breaking down the phonemes of Russian names and recombining them.

I feel it has added a lot to the flavor of the novel, so I'd recommend it for that. I was also watching a podcast on cultural accuracy / sensitivity in the Legend of the Five Rings role playing game, and one thing that stood out to the casters immediately was names that were obviously pasted in from other cultures. For them it was jarring and unpleasant.

So I would say getting names sounding right is pretty important, if you're writing a culture for which you are not a member.

If the culture is not intended to be a direct analogue to an earth culture, you are probably still borrowing elements from one of our cultures. In that case not having jarring names would be good (Asian names in an Aztech style world, or even worse, Spanish ones in that world!)

Creating wholly new names is going to involve creating at least part of a new language, so that you know what sounds are available in that tongue. That's a huge project, so it's not something I would do, but I also don't have a background in linguistics. That kind of endeavor might be far easier for someone with a languages background.

Bottom line, names should serve the story like everything else in the book. Making them an afterthought will muddy your story a bit. Of course, you have to balance the work vrs the value you're getting out of it, as with all world-building. :)
 

Drascus

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I'm writing a story in alternate Russia and I've been using actual Russian names as well as Russian-esque names created by breaking down the phonemes of Russian names and recombining them.

I feel it has added a lot to the flavor of the novel, so I'd recommend it for that. I was also watching a podcast on cultural accuracy / sensitivity in the Legend of the Five Rings role playing game, and one thing that stood out to the casters immediately was names that were obviously pasted in from other cultures. For them it was jarring and unpleasant.

So I would say getting names sounding right is pretty important, if you're writing a culture for which you are not a member.

If the culture is not intended to be a direct analogue to an earth culture, you are probably still borrowing elements from one of our cultures. In that case not having jarring names would be good (Asian names in an Aztech style world, or even worse, Spanish ones in that world!)

Creating wholly new names is going to involve creating at least part of a new language, so that you know what sounds are available in that tongue. That's a huge project, so it's not something I would do, but I also don't have a background in linguistics. That kind of endeavor might be far easier for someone with a languages background.

Bottom line, names should serve the story like everything else in the book. Making them an afterthought will muddy your story a bit. Of course, you have to balance the work vrs the value you're getting out of it, as with all world-building. :)
 

H7TM4N

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I'm writing a story in alternate Russia and I've been using actual Russian names as well as Russian-esque names created by breaking down the phonemes of Russian names and recombining them.

I feel it has added a lot to the flavor of the novel, so I'd recommend it for that. I was also watching a podcast on cultural accuracy / sensitivity in the Legend of the Five Rings role playing game, and one thing that stood out to the casters immediately was names that were obviously pasted in from other cultures. For them it was jarring and unpleasant.

So I would say getting names sounding right is pretty important, if you're writing a culture for which you are not a member.

If the culture is not intended to be a direct analogue to an earth culture, you are probably still borrowing elements from one of our cultures. In that case not having jarring names would be good (Asian names in an Aztech style world, or even worse, Spanish ones in that world!)

Creating wholly new names is going to involve creating at least part of a new language, so that you know what sounds are available in that tongue. That's a huge project, so it's not something I would do, but I also don't have a background in linguistics. That kind of endeavor might be far easier for someone with a languages background.

Bottom line, names should serve the story like everything else in the book. Making them an afterthought will muddy your story a bit. Of course, you have to balance the work vrs the value you're getting out of it, as with all world-building. :)

Interesting! Thank you for your thoughts.
 

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One thing I liked about Game of Thrones (and I wasn't a big fan) was the names. Many names were similar to popular medieval names but slightly different, just as the world is close to medieval England but different (it's a riff on the War of the Roses). So you have Eddard, which is like Edward, who is nicknamed Ned, which was a period nickname for Edward. And you have Joffrey, close to Geoffrey, and Catelyn, close to Catherine. Some, like Robert and Jon, are directly English names from the period. Some are, of course, entirely made up. But I thought it was a good touch, to lend to the familiar-but-different vibe.

So, as others have said, it will depend on what vibe you want to convey and what your world is like. If your world isn't based on medieval England, then it would be super weird to have names that would be found in medieval England.

Now see, that's something that bugged me a bit about those books. The seemingly random back and forth between names that could belong to someone walking down the street today, like Jon Snow, and names that were simply new spellings of real-world names, and names that were made up from whole cloth sounded a lot more "made up" was a bit jarring to me. Reminded me I was reading a fantasy novel with uneven world building. Other things about the books, the first 3 anyway, pulled me in enough that it wasn't a deal breaker, though.

But this illustrates a point, I think. There aren't really set rules about what works for naming in a fantasy world. Readers like and dislike different things.
 

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What I find interesting is that even legitimate names can throw readers. 'Eibhlin' is one of my characters. It is an Irish name, a girl's name, and it's in current use as well as past use. Phonetically it's similar to Evelyn. :) But it's the sort of name that readers get a bit hung up on, when they critique my excerpts.

I don't worry too much if people don't like the names I choose. Star Wars has a Luke running around with an Obi-Wan. So, I can have a Hortentio running around with an Eibhlin and a Jack and a Hyiab.
 

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What I find interesting is that even legitimate names can throw readers. 'Eibhlin' is one of my characters. It is an Irish name, a girl's name, and it's in current use as well as past use. Phonetically it's similar to Evelyn. :) But it's the sort of name that readers get a bit hung up on, when they critique my excerpts.

I don't worry too much if people don't like the names I choose. Star Wars has a Luke running around with an Obi-Wan. So, I can have a Hortentio running around with an Eibhlin and a Jack and a Hyiab.

I do get a bit knocked out when a world that has no Bible or Christianity has a bunch of Biblical names (likewise for names from other specific historical or mythological contexts that don't exist in said fantasy world), but of course it's possible to have a fantasy name that sounds similar to real-world names, but have a different origin, like Sam Gamgee not being Samuel but Samwise. This happens in real life too, where two different cultures just so happen to have the same name with different origins. So an occasional name that resembles a real world one is certainly plausible.

My issue with the ASOIAF names is that so many of them were Biblical.

It also gets complicated, because some names can be popular in one place and not another, even when they speak the same language, so a name that seems out there or weird to one person is common to another. I have a British friend who ran across the name Yvonne for the first time when he was an adult, and he thought it was pronounced Why vone ee for a long time. But it's a moderately popular name in the US and has been since I was a kid (A childhood friend was named Yvonne), and I occasionally get Yvonnes in my class, even today.

I think there are often historical reason for a fantasy country or region to have a great diversity of names, such as its being a crossroads or a place where many different peoples and cultures have moved in and out over the ages. Reality is often messier than idealized word building conventions. I had a critiquer ask why in a fantasy world, some of my names were things like "White Creek," while others were made up names, like Ialdan, and still others mixed made up names with English words like Port Vlick . He felt that was unrealistic and inconsistent, and I pointed out that both the US and Britain have a hodgepodge of place names stemming from different languages and cultures, often right next to one another. He said that's because both countries had been occupied, invaded, and colonized by different cultures at different times in history, and my response was, "Yes, exactly, and that's what I am trying to get across about the history and culture of this region of my fantasy world."

But some name glitches stand out more in a pre-industrial culture than others. Even in a diverse country, it would be unlikely to have John, Yvlich, Valala, Pierre, Smort, and Aiko all in the same family. In the modern US, of course, parents often pick names for their kids from baby books with little understanding of the culture or history behind the names. So we may very well have the first names Hunter, Maria, Madison, and Cohen in the same family. But I am guessing this is a relatively recent thing.

Another way fantasy names depart from reality is that in real life, duplicate names are common, both for first and last names. Even nowadays when people have endless name lists to pick from, certain first names seem to end up being inordinately fashionable for periods of time, and of course certain first and last names come up frequently for specific historical and cultural reasons. As a college instructor, I've seen how certain first names appear on my roster over and over for a few years but may fade into the background as new names became popular (What I see runs 18-20 years behind baby naming fads). Duplicate last names are common too. I get a lot of Vangs, Johnsons, Garcias, Smiths, and Kaurs in my classes each semester. But writers are wary of confusing readers by having duplicate names, even for secondary characters.

Maybe the best advice is to think about why you pick the names you do and think in terms of there being some kind of rules behind naming patterns, whether the names be based on real-world cultures and places, or whether they are completely made up, or some mix of the two.
 

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I do get a bit knocked out when a world that has no Bible or Christianity has a bunch of Biblical names ...

This is something I've been wondering about. I didn't want to create a language for this particular alternate universe WIP, but I wanted to make it easy to recognize the main characters that shared a common culture. Since the first few I named just happened to be biblical, I figured they all could be. Now I'm second-guessing if the names might make people think it's supposed to be THAT culture. Earth doesn't exist in this story at all, so it’s obviously just a translation, right :Huh:
 

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There's a problem with names in historical fiction & historically-based fantasy that's so common it's got a name: the "Tiffany problem." In short, the name Tiffany is a perfectly valid name in medieval England -- well attested in the registers of the 12-15c, and a perfectly legitimate saint's name (derived from St Theophania). BUT -- modern writers can't use "Tiffany" in a medieval setting without getting buried by reader complaints or forced to change it by an editor to prevent reader complaints because "Tiffany" has been such a popular name in recent decades and has such a trendy modern flavor that people can't accept it as genuinely medieval. It may even be worse now because it is seen as not just a modern name but a dated modern name that evokes the 80s & 90s.

The lesson is that even impeccable research isn't necessarily enough. Names from the real world always come trailing their own baggage, & sometimes that gets in the way.
 

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I love the different perspectives on the subject; it's an interesting read! Also, just because we consider some names biblical doesn't mean they would be in a fantasy world. That world might have different stories but use similar names. As long as you write in an earthly language, and I don't know any that aren't ;) , it's only logical you'll use names that are familiar in some way.
 

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I love the different perspectives on the subject; it's an interesting read! Also, just because we consider some names biblical doesn't mean they would be in a fantasy world. That world might have different stories but use similar names. As long as you write in an earthly language, and I don't know any that aren't ;) , it's only logical you'll use names that are familiar in some way.

True, and of course many of those names came from roots that very much pre-date even the old Testament. It's more a matter of their frequency. I tend to prefer made up names in made up worlds that aren't trying to emulate a particular time and culture. One reason is because readers are so likely to assume every single fantasy novel they read must be based, however loosely, on some real-world time and place, most often Medieval Europe. Names that evoke a particular language or culture can reinforce this.

I remember a critting partner commenting that they didn't have microscopes in medieval Europe. Well, no, but this society was neither European nor was it medieval. I had to include more clues prior to the microscope scene to remind readers that the technology level was more early modern with some tweaks and alterations because of the presence of certain kinds of magic.

So the "Tiffany" problem extends to other things in historical (and non historical) fantasy too. There are certain things "everyone knows" about history that are incorrect, so even in well-researched setting that is strongly based on history, people can think a feature is anachronistic when it isn't. Yet things that really are anachronistic, like castles and houses with fireplaces and chimneys prior to the 12th century are accepted uncritically by most readers. I'm not sure what to do about that.

There are also historical sources in conflict with one another. I remember reading in a frequently-cited list of fantasy anachronisms somewhere that they didn't imprison people for crimes in the middle ages but tended to punish them immediately (flogging, branding, maiming and so on) or to kill them or exile them. But Newgate Prison was in use from 1188-1902. I know there's some debate over when the "middle ages" ended in various parts of Europe, but I think we all agree that 1188 was still medieval in England and elsewhere. Of course the prison expanded over time and I'm sure they changed how it was used (initially, the prisons built by Henry II, who wanted the crown to play more of a role in criminal justice, were for housing people awaiting trial but it soon became a debtor's prison too), but obviously there was at least some imprisonment of criminals in some places prior to the early modern era.

Bit of Trivia: the original Newgate burned in the Great London fire and was rebuilt by Christopher Wren of St Paul's Cathedral (not to mention a ton of churches) fame.

Okay, sorry, I'll hit the brakes before the thread derails and falls off a cliff.

I think it's fine to use historical names, though, if your setting is meant to evoke a particular historical era. I tend to prefer setting fantasy in a-historical settings, simply because they better allow me to create the characters and stories I wish to create. But it can be really challenging, because if you make a setting or culture too "weird," many readers won't be able to relate. And it is also true that it can be really hard to create a society or culture that doesn't inadvertently crib or mix and match at least some things from real-world cultures, names or no names.
 
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H7TM4N

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True, and of course many of those names came from roots that very much pre-date even the old Testament. It's more a matter of their frequency. I tend to prefer made up names in made up worlds that aren't trying to emulate a particular time and culture. One reason is because readers are so likely to assume every single fantasy novel they read must be based, however loosely, on some real-world time and place, most often Medieval Europe. Names that evoke a particular language or culture can reinforce this.

I remember a critting partner commenting that they didn't have microscopes in medieval Europe. Well, no, but this society was neither European nor was it medieval. I had to include more clues prior to the microscope scene to remind readers that the technology level was more early modern with some tweaks and alterations because of the presence of certain kinds of magic.

So the "Tiffany" problem extends to other things in historical (and non historical) fantasy too. There are certain things "everyone knows" about history that are incorrect, so even in well-researched setting that is strongly based on history, people can think a feature is anachronistic when it isn't. Yet things that really are anachronistic, like castles and houses with fireplaces and chimneys prior to the 12th century are accepted uncritically by most readers. I'm not sure what to do about that.

There are also historical sources in conflict with one another. I remember reading in a frequently-cited list of fantasy anachronisms somewhere that they didn't imprison people for crimes in the middle ages but tended to punish them immediately (flogging, branding, maiming and so on) or to kill them or exile them. But Newgate Prison was in use from 1188-1902. I know there's some debate over when the "middle ages" ended in various parts of Europe, but I think we all agree that 1188 was still medieval in England and elsewhere. Of course the prison expanded over time and I'm sure they changed how it was used (initially, the prisons built by Henry II, who wanted the crown to play more of a role in criminal justice, were for housing people awaiting trial but it soon became a debtor's prison too), but obviously there was at least some imprisonment of criminals in some places prior to the early modern era.

Bit of Trivia: the original Newgate burned in the Great London fire and was rebuilt by Christopher Wren of St Paul's Cathedral (not to mention a ton of churches) fame.

Okay, sorry, I'll hit the brakes before the thread derails and falls off a cliff.

I think it's fine to use historical names, though, if your setting is meant to evoke a particular historical era. I tend to prefer setting fantasy in a-historical settings, simply because they better allow me to create the characters and stories I wish to create. But it can be really challenging, because if you make a setting or culture too "weird," many readers won't be able to relate. And it is also true that it can be really hard to create a society or culture that doesn't inadvertently crib or mix and match at least some things from real-world cultures, names or no names.

True. It's an interesting topic. I think having my MC comment on a family's odd name when he arrives in a different place will give opportunity to some neat world building while at the same time excuse different peoples and families having different types of names.
 

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