Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Conjuring Nonsense by Sam Bowring

Sam Bowring is a writer and standup comedian living in Sydney. He has written for TV, including Rove and The Comedy Channel, as well as stage plays, books for children, and fantasy. Sam's fantasy series, The Broken Well Trilogy, is published by Orbit. Today, Sam is channelling loose thoughts on fantasy names.

For me, one of the hardest parts of writing a fantasy story is thinking up names - for characters, places, magical swords and such - that do not sound completely cringe-worthy. I’m sure I’m not the only one who, upon inspecting the blurb of a potential read, has flung it back on the bookshelf in disgust because it said something about a hero called ‘Nynmn’dryhl of the Xyl’turym’. Can I buy a vowel, please?

That said, appreciation of fantasy names is a personal thing, about as subjective as it gets. How can anyone guess what collection of randomly spliced letters will prove pleasing to the ear of another? One person’s ‘Nynmn’dryhl’ might be another’s ‘Bilbo Baggins’. It would be arrogant to stand here (sometimes I write standing up) and tell you what does or does not make a good fantasy name. Especially when I myself have created names that look like I tossed the alphabet against the wall, and whatever stuck to the peanut butter was what I went with. It’s very hard to get these things right by everyone. One of my good friends, for instance, never lets me forgot that I named a place ‘Whisperwood’.

‘Whisperwood,’ he will say, years later, out of the blue, shaking his head in dismay.

What I can give are tips on approaches, if not results. The best way to decide results, I find, is to simply ask people you trust, ‘does this name work for you, or does it make you want to jump out of your skin into an acid bath?’

One approach, which I imagine is a common starting point for many authors, is to simply diddle around with syllables, putting them together in various ways, saying the words aloud until striking upon a pleasing combination. I do not own the patent for this, and drugs are optional.

Another approach is to be derivative in some way. For example, in my book Prophecy’s Ruin, there is a nasty little talking bird who revels in lies and manipulation, and generally screwing things up for everyone. His name is Iassia, which is very much inspired by that classic silver-tongued Shakespearean villain, Iago. Such derivation need not be based on another character, of course, but may take as its basis a descriptive word for the character’s persona. My character ‘Malevot’, for example, is taken from ‘malicious’, ‘malevolent’, and possibly, ‘Malcolm’ (see next point).

A third approach I use is to take a real-world name, and simply change a letter or two. I find this especially useful when it comes to small-time characters, and means I wind up with a lot of farmers called things like Borry.

Incidentally, I find small-time characters the most difficult to name. The reason is, it still takes time to come up with something good, and when I finally do, I don’t want to waste it on some two-line nobody. Thus I am forever transplanting good names from incidentals to mains, leaving all guards-who-are-about-to-get-killed with necessarily dubious monikers that I have no fear of becoming attached to.

On the subject of real-world names, one thing I always find jarring in fantasy is when a real name is mixed in with the made-up ones. Amongst the Nynmn’dryhls and Dakurs, why, here’s Mary everyone. ‘Let me introduce you to Mary, Nynmn’dryhl!’ Whether this incongruity reeks of laziness, or the author just liked the name Mary a lot, I’m never really sure ... but I just don’t buy Zeddicus Zul Zorander having a grandson called Dick.

Something rarely seen in fantasy is two characters sharing the same name. In the real world we have plenty of Johns and Susans. If you can believe it, we even have plenty of Schapelles and Mercedes. In fantasy, however, you just don’t get such realistic repetition.

‘I am Zarrakvah, Lord of Darkness.’
‘Hello there, my lord. I’m Zarrakvah too, shearer of sheep.’
‘Ah. Well, that seems to undermine my mystique a little, does it not?’
‘Aye, sorry lord. I was named after my uncle Zarrakvah, actually.’

You never get this scene in fantasy, maybe at a cocktail party:

‘Oh, greetings to you … er … sorry, was it Teremond?’
‘Actually it’s Deridas.’
‘Sorry, of course. That was going to be my next guess.’

Parents of fantasy book characters are like the worst of movie stars, forever trying to bestow their spawn with unique and original names, to signify their amazing individuality. Did they go through the approaches I have previously described? Two high elves sitting by the cradle, thuggishly ramming letters together in ways their makers never intended, until all that’s left to decide is where to flick the arbitrary apostrophe? ‘Well,’ they gush later to their friends, ‘we just thought, you know, shelooks like a Gwyn’talamodrin!’

It’s something I have pondered at length (I need to get out more), and I can appreciate why this one-off naming system exists. It would be confusing, of course, to have two Gwyn’talamodrins running about in any given universe, especially if they rent from the same video store.

I recently decided to buck this trend, however (though no one in particular was challenging me to), and am proud to announce that in my upcoming books, there are not onenot two, but three characters who share the same name. Which is Hanry, by the way. So good on me, eh?


At least, when all is said and done, no matter what names you have come up with, be assured that any given reader probably won’t pronounce them in the way that you intended. The way someone reads a name the first time is how they will remember it for life - even if they’ve subconsciously added extra letters, recklessly ignoring all laws of phonetic pronunciation. It’s kind of an inbuilt safety mechanism for the author, as readers superimpose their own preferences over the utter nonsense you have dished up to them, to make it more personally palatable. 

It even happens with seemingly innocuous names. I have a friend who pronounces Fazel as ‘Fah-zel’, as opposed to ‘Fay-zel’ and do you think I ever once cleared my throat to inform her, in haughty tones, that she isn’t saying it right?

Ho ho, no. I’d rather she say it how she wants, and think me cleverer than I am, at coming up with names she likes.

Finally, the best way to know that you have gotten a name right - or, at least, are happy with it yourself - is when you finally add it to your spellchecker as a real word. This way your word processor is not constantly underlining it red, as if to ask, ‘Are you sure about this? Really? Are you sure?’

I have not yet done this with Nynmn’dryhl.

Also, I do not really write standing up.

One of the most frequent FAQs is how fantasy authors come up with names. Thanks for answering it for me, Sam. And for the laughs.

Sam's website is http://sambowring.com/

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