FIRST WE HAVE NAMING OF NAMES – by Margaret Ball
So many aspects of language can overlap with science fiction and fantasy that it’s hard to know where to start. Even if you have absolutely no desire to be J.R.R. Tolkien and design your own language, you can’t get away from all issues. Take characters. Characters generally have to have names. And as soon as they have names, you’re setting up expectations about the kind of world they live in. So let’s think about that for a bit.
“For he said unto him, Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit. And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.” (Mark 5:8-9)
Names have power. You know that; everyone knows it at some level. It’s why characters in the Harry Potter books talk about “He who must not be named,” why some people refer to “the Little People,” or “the Good People,” why other people torture language with phrases like “manmade disaster” or “workplace violence.” Ever since Isis gained power over the sun god Ra by learning his true name, humans have respected the power of names. From pre-industrial tribes who give children a secret name, to the Yoruba who believe that all things can be commanded by those who know their true names, to Rumpelstiltskin, the knowledge and use of names is magic. Medieval Jews sought to invoke angels by using their true names, while Christians expelled demons by forcing the possessed to give up either the name of the demon or that of a saint feared by the demon.
And don’t forget Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God.”
At some point in the writing of your novel, your characters need names. Sometimes they’ll speak up and tell you their names, which may save effort or may require you to argue with them. (“You can’t be named Faure! I’ve already got a Fabre. Do you want to go through the whole book being thought of as ‘that guy who isn’t Fabre’?”) At other times you may get as far as a five-page synopsis before finding that you can no longer simply refer to these people as X, Y, the café owner, and the dissident professor. I can’t think much about my characters until they have names. I don’t know what pantsers do about this; maybe Sarah can tell us. I do find life is less complicated if I have captured the central idea of a book and know the roles the main characters play before I start naming them. And I like to think about names for all the main characters at once, for reasons I’ll go into below.
What names tell a reader about the author’s world
If the first pages of a book introduce you to Tom, Dick, and Harry, you know that either you’re in a present-time or near-future world, or the author wasn’t willing to do the work of finding names that fit the world’s cultural context. If you meet Thomas, Dickon and Heriot, you may expect a medieval or early-Renaissance culture. Tomas, Dietrich and Henri suggest a multi-cultural society with strong European roots. V’t’om, K’Detri’k and and H’ri suggest that you’ve wandered into one of those fantasy novels with three maps and five pages of instructions on how to pronounce everything, and I would suggest that you put the book down and back away slowly, because the author is signaling that he is more interested in the spiffy language and kinship structure he’s invented than in entertaining you.
But my characters all speak Galactic, so they can talk to each other and I don’t have to think about all this. Tom, Dick and Harry will work just fine.
Will they? Sure, if you assume “Galactic” is code for “English” and that English hasn’t changed at all in the however-many-centuries have passed between the present time and the time of interstellar travel and the spread of “Galactic.”
This is not a good assumption to make. You don’t have to work out a complete description of the language change, and you certainly shouldn’t inflict it upon your reader, but the names should at least indicate that some time has passed since the present day. Tom, Dik and Hari don’t actually reflect language change, just some reform of our current spelling system, but at least they tell the reader that we’re not in 21st-century America any more.*
If you want names that aren’t related to English, obscure – or even not-so-obscure – languages can be a great resort. By the time you’ve met Aral, Piotre, Ivan, and Pierre, and come across a couple of references to “Greekies,” you know that Lois Bujold’s Barrayar contains at least three ethnic groups, with those of Russian origins probably in the majority. And if the language is obscure enough, you don’t even have to use names; common words work just as well. It’s easy to find vocabulary lists or even full dictionaries for obscure languages on the Internet; you’re seldom more than two clicks away from a generous list of words to choose from.**
Help the reader tell your characters apart
This is one reason for thinking about a group of characters together. Our friends Tom, Dick and Harry above weren’t chosen at random. They all start with different letters; they use different vowel; two are monosyllabic and one has two syllables. This is called being considerate to your reader.***.
For another example, think about the English names for numbers 1-10. Apart from “five” and “nine” no two number names use the same vowel sound.**** Military people and, I think, air traffic controllers, who are seriously interested in accurate transmission of spoken numbers, have adopted the convention of pronouncing “nine,” as “nin-er” to avoid that possible confusion. In fact, most languages make the names for these numbers as orthogonal to one another as possible. (Just don’t try this with German, which starts off with “ein, zwei, drei.”)
Titles, kinship structures, and other little traps
If you’re using the traditional English first name-last name structure, don’t have a given character refer to Tom Fairfax as “Tom” in one paragraph and “Fairfax” in the next. Remember, any time the reader has to flip back to figure out that Tom and Fairfax are actually the same person, you’ve pulled him out of the story. If, in the culture of your book, the only difference is that a wife doesn’t take her husband’s last name, it’s polite to make that clear up front so the reader won’t assume that Guinevere Leodegrance is living in sin with Arthur Pendragon.
If you’re using very different naming conventions, especially those based on different kinship structures, try to get the structure and conventions clear to your reader up front, so they won’t be confused when Signy Ketilsdottir turns out to be Bjorn Ketilson’s sister, or Simon Deveraux, Marquess of Glastonbury is addressed variously as “My Lord,” “Lord Glastonbury,” “Glastonbury,” or “Deveraux.” If the kinship rules are so complicated that you have to spell them out in an appendix… consider simplifying them.
And that’s all I have to say about naming people. If you’ve got more ideas, let me know in the comments. And if Sarah lets me visit again, maybe we can talk about place names and the names of things, First Contact stories, the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, and other intriguing crossroads where language meets fiction.
*However, you may have just evoked Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, so you might want to use, oh, Humfri or Henrik for your third name here.
** Back in the days when we inscribed our manuscripts on wax tablets and shipped them to New York packaged in dry ice, I had a bookshelf dedicated to dictionaries of obscure languages.
*** This is a general principle for fiction, not just for science fiction and fantasy. Historical novels can be tricky because you’re stuck with the actual names of any characters who are known to history. The twelfth century is particularly dicey because a quick reading of chronicles suggests that everybody was named William unless they happened to be female, in which case they were referred to as Maud/Matilda interchangeably. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve written a scene with just three characters, all of whom are known to history as William.
**** Which is why, in the seventies, I snickered every time somebody announced, “I’ve made a breakthrough in automatic speech recognition! I tested it on the numbers one through ten, now all I have to do is adapt it to a wider vocabulary.” There were a lot of people who didn’t realize they were building vowel recognition systems.