23 April 2017

Naming Names in Epic Fiction Pt 2

In my last blogging twitch I revealed how I didn't like the name my parents gave me but gradually accepted it for tax purposes and more. I believe the consternation at my own name has influenced how carefully I name characters in my books. Especially in stories set on other worlds or fantasy lands where the usual English names should not apply. There, a name unfamiliar to us may yet carry some weight, be loaded with symbolism, and annoy its bearer to no end...right?

You would think coming up with names in a fantasy story would be easy: just throw some letters together and voila a character is born! You could do that, but does the name sound like that character's name? Does it make the reader believe this character will act a certain way? speak in a particular dialect? think in strange ways? Who can say? That is what makes naming more difficult for fantasy and science fiction. 

The easiest way to choose names is look at drugs. Xanax is a powerful commander of the Prilosec fleet of intergalactic warships. Or try choosing a "normal" name and changing a letter or two. Tom, Dick, and Harry could become Tam, Wick, and Darry - three Hobbits in a new fantasy tale. Back to THE DREAM LAND Trilogy: I made my own formal rules for "alien" names, partly to keep them straight in my head, whereby male names ended with consonants and female names with vowel sounds. For example, Samot and Aisa, two legendary figures in Sekuatean mythology. (Did you see what I did there? I reversed two letters so it is not Asia, the continent, but Aisa ["Eye-zuh"] the girl.)

Even in EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS names are important to the characters. Our hero is Corlan, a name I toyed with and finally settled on as something a rough and tough hero might be called. Surname? I hesitated for several chapters, then in a flash of inspiration I "unwhited" him. Or so I thought. Diversity being all the rage these days, I thought to make him "Asian" in a make-believe world with no Asia. I let him bear the family name of Tang. It sounds like a Chinese name and yet on an invented setting it could be anything. His auburn hair wouldn't exactly fit an Asian name, however, but that would just add to the mystery, eh? His name is eventually explained in the story - and makes perfect sense, of course.

I stayed with that scheme for the city of Covin, an all-women city where the few men allowed there are either slaves, dinner, or sometimes briefly a sire. At that point in my writing of the novel, the setting had shifted from something completely invented, like a slightly less Middle Earth, to a futuristic American landscape. So there was definitely no Asian anything - except as may have been "left over" from the world we know today. Who can say for sure? The Queen of Covin is named Hiro Ka, which sounds Japanese. All part of the story. Later we learn that these "trendy" names are just corruptions of longer names. For example, we learn that the Queen of Covin's original name was Hillary Kavanaugh. Make of that twist as you will, perhaps the "white" person wishing to be more exotic? Another twist, another mystery. And Covin is clearly meant to be the old Covington, Kentucky, right? Everyone can see that, true?

At one point in the tale, our band of heroes encounters the manly men city of Luval where they persuade the local regent to form a flotilla to go down the river to kill dragons. What is needed most besides ships are river pilots. And important river pilots must be given names. As they had limited yet crucial scenes, I needed to imbue them with a sense of personality with just a name and barely a sentence of description. My head was stuck on two-syllable names at that point in the writing so I decided on single-syllable names just for expediency: Bant, Durk, and Lond. During revisions, they grew on me and so I awarded them a second syllable, so they became Bantun, Durkin, and Londrel. As I put the names together I envisioned how each man would appear. For Bantun, I saw a shorter, chunkier man with a beard yet a bald head, a serious type. Durkin was livelier, a jester, while Londrel was tall with a hooked nose, and much too serious - and cowardly. 

There is a running commentary throughout the novel recounting the history of the age before the one in the story, called the Age of the Five Princes. This feature actually was to be a sub-story weaving through a much longer novel. Instead, it became a mere mention here and there. But the five princes "long ago" are instrumental in setting the context of the present story. In the medieval-themed novel I had planned as a teen, the princes were Terrens, Nicholas, Dellus, Ulrich, and Argus - and I have no idea why I chose those particular names. However, in transforming them to a make-believe world, I could not use "Nicholas" or "Ulrich" which are perfectly good Earth names. So I shifted them to Teran, Nilas, Darus, Urix, and Agor, which sound more exotic. It seems Urix made the greatest impression as our hero Corlan finds many people since that time named their sons after Urix  - to our hero's constant annoyance. 

And even our hero Corlan's sidekick, the boy from the palace kitchen named Tam, has a longer, more official name: Tamondarus!
“Who were the other princes?” asked the boy.
“There was Teran, the eldest, a half-brother only. And Urix, and Agor. Teran was the poet, the artist. Urix was the power broker, the mediator—alas, unsuccessful in the end. Agor was the general of the army of Nilas. Agor escaped from Inati during the trials. They all died in the end. Nilas lived the longest yet always in pain.”
“Oh.” Tam frowned.
“My grandfather and his grandfather were both named Urix after that ancient prince,” said Corlan automatically.
“I’m named after my mother’s grandfather!” sang the boy.
“Tam is a good name,” said Corlan.
“No, it’s really Tamondarus!”
Corlan laughed at the boy’s boisterous declaration. “You’re right. Tam is much better.”
“You can call me Tamondarus if you want to.”
“No, I’ll call you Tam. Or just boy.”
“It’s like that other Darus, the prince who died.”
“He was the evil one, you know,” said Joragus. “That’s the story. Stole Nilas’ betrothed, he did, then made a union with her, the poor maiden. That’ll start a war, all right!”
“Then what happened?” asked Tam.
“Nilas asked for her back. Darus refused.”
Corlan was ready to stop yet the glow on the boy’s face said he wanted to hear more. 

Every epic fantasy must have a wizard or a mage or, better yet, a magus! The one in my novel is named by little better a method than flipping cards into a hat: Joragus. As the chapters unfolded, however, his name began to have other associations. Being more than three-hundred years old, he can remember a lot. He recalls the way people in his past called him. Instead of Joragus, he is actually Jorge of the U.S. - with the name being pronounced as the Hispanic name "Hor-hay".

And then there are place names. In realistic fiction, we simply check a map. In a fantasy setting we throw some letters together - but again, does the name reflect the characteristics of the place? But sometimes there are places which are not shown on maps - big places which no god or goddess has needed to have mapped. In the novel, the interludes together tell the story of a little princess who flees her island home. Eventually she comes to understand through her lessons the true nature of . . . well, of literally everything. Using the egg-shaped "birthstone" - a magic object which every epic fantasy story must include - the goddess reveals the places only a goddess would understand:

She knew that nations were made of cities, and worlds were made of nations. Furthermore, the worlds she knew and worlds she did not know were all wrapped around things called planets, and they all spun around things called stars, which all surged within a mighty maelstrom called galaxies, which floated in a thing called universe, which balanced on the tip of a thing called O, which was kept locked away inside a small treasure chest called...what was it called? She suddenly forgot, and Hidel [her dragon] shifted awkwardly beneath her as if he sensed her distress.
There were other goddesses, of course, so she did not have to do everything herself. Yet it was quite clear that this land over which she soared was meant to be cared for by her. The goddess Sei Bo had told her so, and when a goddess tells you something, you believe it and you remember it—
Ah! The treasure chest is called Ah! And every person carried a piece of it inside themselves, said the birthstone in a strange new language she was still learning, full of squiggles and dots and checks and lines cut into pieces. They filled her head, made her want to sleep, even though she knew there would never be any sleep for her. The days extended for ages and the nights even longer.

Did you see what she did there? The universe is something sitting on the tip of something larger, vaster - which is contained in something very, very small. Thereby adding mystery to the story - and perhaps a new religion. Who can say? Epic fantasy is all about names, putting the right name to the right character, place, or object, thus bringing it into existence for the first time. Epic fantasy has a way of starting things, at least for those who can subtly sense its finer nuances. And understand the meanings of names given surreptitiously between sips of coffee on a Sunday morning. That's how the O turns sometimes. You know? 

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

09 April 2017

Naming Names in Epic Fiction

As a kid, I never liked my name. It was too easy for other kids to deliberately mispronounce just to tease me. So once I started writing stories, I thought up several cool pen names to replace the name my parents had foisted upon me. However, I gave up pseudonyms eventually because I decided I needed to use my real name so family and friends would believe I actually wrote the books.

The subject of names continues to impact my life, especially my writing life, because as writers know, names are important. After all, Adam was tasked with naming the flora and fauna of the Garden of Eden, and with each pronouncement, it became real. Each time we cast a label on something, we could be said to name it. And naming creates powerful associations. Our characters’ names are no different, never more so than in fantasy. 

In contemporary fiction, however, names are easy (supposedly) because they are familiar words friends and neighbors might bear. I used to read through baby-name books to find just the right name for a character. Surnames were tougher. I looked in phone books.

Perhaps not every character fiddles with his or her name. Thank goodness they seldom complain. I imagine, however, that characters do what real people do, and fiddling with and changing and using just the right name is as important to them as it is to a lot of us. Sometimes a name is actually a crucial element of a character's psyche, motivation, or raison-d'être.

For example, in my contemporary novel A BEAUTIFUL CHILL, the heroine, Íris (note the accent mark), is from Iceland and the correct Icelandic pronunciation of her name matters to her. As it turns out, her name is about all she has that is truly hers, so she firmly corrects anyone who speaks her name with the English pronunciation; her friends know how to say it and by that quirk she marks them as friends. “My name is Íris. Like the letter E,” she scolds the male protagonist early on. It is literally a defining moment for her: 'Get my name right, or we’ll have nothing to do with each other.' Her name is a major motif throughout the book.

In another example, the young man in THE DREAM LAND science fiction trilogy who in the last book takes over the story from our hero is named "Chucker". It's a nickname used by his mother since he was a little boy, and since he is now searching for her on another world, it has meaning to him. Visiting Earth on his travels, he meets up with a detective who agrees to help him.

“What do they call you in school? Is it Chuck or Charlie?”
“Chucker is what they call me—but I hate that name. Mom was crazy naming me that. Chuck R. Tucker. The ‘R’ stands for René. Sissy name, ain’t it? That was her dad’s name. Her name was Tucker, and after she got married it was McElroy. Then she changed it back to Tucker. My dad’s name is Chuck. That’s what Grandma said. So everybody calls me Chucker Tucker—ya know, like Chuck R. Tucker? Hate it.”

(For more instruction on naming the characters in THE DREAM LAND Trilogy, click to this blog post.)

And in the ultimate example, Alex Parris is in love with everything about the Trojan War in AFTER ILIUM. In fact, when he meets an older woman named Elena on a cruise ship bound for Turkey, where he will tour the ruins of Ilium, he cannot help but imagine himself as young Paris carrying off his prized Helen to the storied walls of Ilium. That name association is the start of a whole lot of trouble for Alex. Bearing the wrong name is as bad as being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In my Japanese romance novel AIKO we again place a name at the center of the story. Of course it has to be a Japanese name. "Aiko" literally means "love" and "child" (愛子) - not an unusual name in Japan but one with other associations to English-language readers. Aiko's mother's family name also has meaning. Nakamori means "in the middle of the forest" if you translate the kanji symbols to their basic meaning. And, yes, our protagonist does search for her in the forest of northern Japan.

Names are important in another recent novel A GIRL CALLED WOLF. The young heroine's birth name means wolf in her native language. After struggling on her own after her mother dies in the harsh landscape of Greenland, she treks to the nearest village. In time she adopts a new name, a Christian name, Anna, but she continues to carry the "wolf" associations with her no matter what name she uses. The associations with "Wolf" are an important feature of the character - a character based on a real person whose real name was "Wolf".
So let me suggest, when you select a character’s name - whether it’s some common Anglo-Saxon name, a Biblical name, or something Chinese, Indian, or whatever - keep in mind the associations the name may have. Think about how the character carries his/her name. How picky is your character about the name? Also, what nicknames may ensue: Elizabeth is a noble name but it boils down to Lizzy. How does the character react to other people using or misusing their names? Will people see Stephen and pronounce it Stefan? Names become another element, another layer, of a character’s identity.

Because what is a name but a marker of identity? It's proof of existence, and for a fictional persona brought magically to life in the pages of a story, existence is everything.

Your homework for next time is to come up with names for the following stock characters in an epic fantasy:
  • The brave, burly hero who is good with swords
  • An old woman who mixes potions in her cave
  • Two little boys who like to play pranks on villagers
  • A beautiful prized mount (which may not necessarily be a horse)
  • The charming princess who may or may not have magic powers


(C) Copyright 2010-2017 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.