25 January 2011

What's in a Name?

Recently I joined a discussion list for a fiction contest through Amazon.com regarding submissions of science-fiction and fantasy novels and whether or not they had any chance of winning with judges who were more comfortable with mainstream/general fiction. Aside from that notion, a thread developed--helped along by my own inquiry--about the use of names for characters (and, I suppose, places, objects, etc.) that were based on the alien culture and language. My thoughts caused me to post several responses and then, as it turned out, to defend them. So, now I have the idea that I should make a list of my alien name principles.

Here they are:

1. People/characters born and raised on a non-Earth world or in a non-Earth culture would naturally be given names common in that culture and based phonetically and etymologically on that culture's language.

2. Therefore, it is strange to read of that person/character having a common English name, for example, John or Mary, even with a different spelling (e.g. Jawn or Merii, which might be acceptable because it doesn't look English or Earthan [is that a word?]).

3. Thus, an author should give forethought to the culture--and language is a crucial, even central, part of any culture--when inventing names. And given our own Earth or even English/Western culture, we see that names come from several origins and have meaning and follow certain patterns of spelling and use.

4. An author should invent similar spelling/pronunciation, meaning, origin, and use in order to make such naming carry the flavor of the culture and thus be more believable to the reader.

While a full-scale explanation of language invention has been dealt with in books already, some intended for sci-fi writers' benefit, others for linguists or others interested in languages, some sampling can be offered as examples.

1. In a collection of stories including and based on the story "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov, there is an interesting foreword in which is stated that the use of names and measurements is rendered in English so as to be easy for readers to follow. Further explanation suggests that it would make no sense and be tiresome to force the reader to go through the story deciphering names and such. To a point, I would agree. BUT...

2. Part of the reason for setting a story in an alien world is to have something different than the usual world. The use of common names, etc. keeps me thinking of Earth and all the values and familiar things of Earth. I recognize that we cannot have the whole story in an alien language any more than we can be expected to read a story in, say, Chinese if we have never studied Chinese. (Another reason for making the setting an alien world is to be able to use the possibly different properties of physics or biology that are particularly needed in the story.) THUS...

3. The use of some alien language is beneficial for several reasons: a) it reminds readers where they are, b) it adds the flavor of the alien culture to the story, c) it creates a truly different world where cultural perspectives influence how people see things and thus name them, which in turn, d)tells us something of the alien culture itself, which e) makes the story more "realistic" at least in the sense that a sci-fi story can be considered realistic, and last but not least, f) it makes the reading experience fun--to me, perhaps not to everyone.

I liked Star Trek more when the Klingons began to speak their own language, language which further illuminated their culture and history. Conversely, the use of English names in the Star Wars series (more so in the original 3 films than the latter 3) always threw me for a loop, seeing an alternate universe but being connected back to a guy named Luke (a Biblical name!) Skywalker (a little Buck Rogers-ish for me; why not give him the name, say, "Fu-Tak" which means "he who walks the sky" in the culture of Tatooine? [Note: I do not know the language of that world and am just making up a translation, but you get the idea.]) [*Special note to Star Wars fans: I have nothing against the story in the Star Wars saga!]

Perhaps it is a personal matter how we take our sci-fi aliens. I like some language thrown in. But moderation is always a good thing, and I have wavered between too much and none. I want flavor and nuance, but I try to recognize the limits of patience of my readers, forced to figure out what they are saying. Nevertheless, I will stick with my principles, especially in the universe of the Dream Land series, where Ghoupallean, Zetin, Roue, and Danid are joined in the third book by Dikondran and Tigu!


  1. Hello fellow ABNA contestant. I entered my novel as fantasy last year and later realized this hurt my chances of winning. The Publisher's Weekly judges were looking for something that wasn't there. Your post here confirms that I had categorized my work in the wrong genre. My novel is, as I later discovered, women's fiction (upmarket, not romance) with paranormal elements. My only option this year was to enter it under general fiction. Good luck with the contest. Hope to follow your progress at least through the semi-finalists.

  2. OK, I confess. It is indeed the ABNA contest. As my first time entering this competition, I foolishly thought to hide the fact that I am using a contest rather than an agent to start my publishing career.

    For my full disclosure, I will state that my entry is NOT one of the science-fiction novels in The Dream Land series. I used my mainstream romance [upmarket?*] story. (Well, quasi-romance. Actually, kind of an anti-romance.)

    Good luck to everyone who entered, and better luck to me!

    *I consider it literary fiction but it does revolve around two people and their relationship.