Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: Naming Characters

This month, I am going to pay homage to Diana Wynne Jones, the author of such fabulous works as Howl’s Moving Castle and The Dark Lord of Derkholm, two excellent fantasy novels that are humorous, clever, and endearing.

As a sort of companion (but not reallyto The Dark Lord of Derkholm, Jones also put together a Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which is supposedly meant for tourists visiting the stereotypical Fantasyland and going on a prearranged adventure.  It painfully and revealingly (and alphabetically) defines any and every term you could possibly wish to know about in your average fantasy kingdom.  irish castle dun luce

While not every fantasy novel uses these clichés, it is very fun to think back on your readings and note those stories and books that do ascribe to the occasional somewhat overdone story element.  And, of course, there are lessons here to be learned for any future fantasy writing that you might do.

The cliché that I want to look at today is naming characters, something that I’ve thought about and written about before. Jones’s description is terrifyingly apt when it comes to many fantasy novels:

Names are very potent in Fantasyland.  People with no Names always get killed (unless they are powerfully EVIL and have a Name That Must Not Be Spoken, in which case they get killed anyway, but a lot later).  Of those who have Names, almost nobody tells anyone else what their Name really is, for fear of its being used in a spell to enslave them.  Magic Users have to be particularly careful of this.  But Mercenaries also tend to call themselves things like Bald Eagle and Silversword, presumably for the same reason (or maybe because their true Names are Joe Coward and Jill Doe). Missing Heirs are always called Names like Triggs and Dumpling: when they find their Names are really Prince Tornalorn or Princess Diore, they stop being Missing. This shows how important Names can be. Average Folk, Sages, and some Tourists, however, adopt the expedient of cutting out half their Names and filling the gaps with apostrophes, as in Ka’a Orto’o.  Then, unless you know what was in the gap, you can’t enslave them.  This is the true reason why so many Names in Fantasyland contain apostrophes.

Many folk – Elves and Demons particularly – are given hugely long Names so that they can be conveniently shortened in this way.  Demons, indeed, would have a bad time otherwise.  As soon as a Magic User learns a Demon’s Name, that Demon has to do anything the Magic User wants.

On some Tours the same prudent coyness applies to Magic Objects.  The exceptions are Swords, who seem very proud of being known to be really Excalibur or Widowmaker.

There are a few key points that Jones lays out here for our guidance.  First of all, the no-name characters.  Is she right about this?  Isn’t it a bit of a death warrant to be nameless in a battle or on any sort of expedition?  Many an author has realized that killing off a few nameless villagers or soldiers can add a pretty useful bit of angst to a scene.  Of course, this cliché can be wielded with great cunningosity simply by giving a character a name in order to lull the reader into a false sense of security and then immediately killing him/her (the character, that is, not the reader as this would be rather difficult and very frightening).

The nameless villain also probably sounded strangely familiar.  In case you were wondering, the Tough Guide was published before the first Harry Potter book was released.  Make what you will of that.  Authors like Rowling have proved their willingness and ableness to take clichés like this and make them overdone to the point of being funny.  However, there is always that novel where the author means Every. Single. Word.welsh sign

The idea of secret names is very familiar.  To have a name be something powerful and mysterious and to distinguish something’s True Name from its mere “name” in any given language has been used and reused.  It’s not necessarily a bad idea.  We have to admit, it sounds very cool.  But again, overdone can feel a tad melodramatic.  One book I know of that embraces this name-magic fully is Eragon and it is no joke, that’s for sure.

castel coch red castleMy particular favorite in Jones’s treatise on Names is her bit about the apostrophes.  Oh, apostrophes, why?  It is so tempting to throw in a few apostrophes to make a name look exotic, foreign, perhaps mimicking something Middle Eastern.  It’s a very cool idea, but I find myself mentally stuttering when they are used too often.  Every apostrophe becomes a full stop in the word and the flow is horribly interrupted.  Jones’s explanation for this (that these are just shortened full names being masked or conveniently abbreviated) is  brilliant, in my opinion, but not an excuse to indulge in this too freely.

So what do you think about naming characters.  Have you seen any of these used in a novel?  Did they work or did they feel cliché?  Have you used any of them?  Do you REPENT?

Fantasyland is tough, but at least it comes with a guidebook.


23 thoughts on “Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: Naming Characters

  1. I have read all of Diana Wynne Jones’s Books!!!!!! They are really good. The Tough Guide to Fantasy Cliches is so true! I love reading this author’s work.

  2. Thanks for this! 🙂 I love Diana Wynne Jones’ guide (as well as her novels), and I enjoyed this post a lot.
    I tend to decide on a “linguistic affiliation” for my fantasy names and go from there so that a people/the population in a given area has names derived from e.g. Finnish, Greek, Indian or Germanic traditions. I think I grew out of apostrophes at the age of 15. 😉 (Though I’m sure they could be used with great effect if done right.)

    1. I think linguistic affiliation is one of the absolute best ways to name characters (and cities and such) if you aren’t a linguist yourself who can create your own languages (aka, if you aren’t Tolkien). I am doing that with my serial The Holder Wars in our ezine. The names of the characters tend towards Irish/Scottish sounding names, although I’ve blunted it a bit and thrown in some quasi-fantasy-ish names as well just to keep things interesting.

      And thank you for being sensible about your apostrophes!

    1. It’s always terrifying to discover an author who writes characters and gives them names and personalities and then proceeds to ruthlessly (perhaps even gleefully?) kill them…

      Now I want a character named Smith John who has a wild, but tragically brief career at the beginning of a story.

      1. Gleefully? Never. Ruthless? When required by the story, absolutely. However, I won’t spend 20 hours developing a character background only to kill them off in the first scene. Those individuals usually get names and a few tags. As you stated, just enough to make the reader interested before they come to a tragic end.

  3. Heh. I just started Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and the main villain there has a Name That Must Not Be Spoken. The funny thing is, the name they call him by, not The One That Must Not Be Spoken, has apostrophes. So maybe he’s being really clever and double-hiding his name? Hm.

    1. It’s almost a case of “If you can’t beat em, join em” isn’t it? If you can wield the cliches properly, then they are your servants rather than your masters. I enjoyed your post on place-names! Very similar to character names, if you aren’t Tolkien, don’t get overzealous with the apostrophes and pretention!

      1. Pretty much. But if you join ’em, join ’em with style!

        I knew, from the beginning, that I wasn’t Tolkien, but it took me a longer time to realize that that isn’t a bad thing. 😉

  4. Cunningosity is a lovely coinage, which displays great . . . cunningosity.

    Killing one’s readers could be very dramatic. Unfortunately, I have all too few as it is and cannot spare any. Which means if you are not one of my readers, you need to become one very quickly. Your very life could be at stake!

    1. But if you get enough readers, will that mean that they will begin to appear more expendable in your eyes? I’ll just be careful not to wear a red shirt…

  5. In Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, I could always tell when a male character was a dragonrider–his name was shortened to a contraction (Fallon, post-Impression, became F’lar). Weyrwomen (queenriders) did not have this happen to their names.

    Voldemort (the villain of Harry Potter) had several names: Voldemort (which only Dumbledore and Harry used), “You-Know-Who” (used mostly by Hagrid), and “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” (used by largely everyone else).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s