Fantasy Naming Conventions
A fantasy novel is nothing without its author’s imagination. It takes a creative mind to develop unique worlds outside of our own filled with magic, adventure and original characters. Especially in such a broad genre, it takes a lot to stand out on the shelves – and authors have been going to great lengths to create original and imaginative novels in recent years. But if there’s one aspect of this some have taken a tad too far, it’s naming.
In narratives filled with so many fantastical and imaginative elements, readers need something grounded in reality, and characters they can connect with to lead them through the story. It’s enough for a reader to suspend their belief to understand a fictional world with its own history, culture and characters without having to worry about pronouncing character’s names and wondering why those letters (and God forbid apostrophes) are together.
No modern works of fantasy would exist without the influence of Tolkien. And one of the reasons his work is so influential is because of his skill in worldbuilding. Even without having seen the rolling hills and mountains of New Zealand in the films, the Middle Earth in the books just feels real. The world has a rich history of mythology, clashing cultures and languages (each with their own deviations and dialects). Having studied ancient languages long before even writing The Hobbit, Tolkien was able to put language at the centre of his world. And this is why his languages and characters feel so much like real, historical words – because they were inspired by real, historical words (besides Elvish, which includes very few words inspired by existing languages). For example, the name Gandalf comes from the Old Norse name Gandalfr, taken by the words gandr meaning “wand”, “staff” or magic” and álfr – “elf” (the Norse influence on dwarves is noticeable as well). Character names from Rohan were inspired by Anglo-Saxon Old English, and most others are from variations of Elvish – which I won’t even begin to get into. Language was so important to Tolkien that he said he’d considered Lord of the Rings to be “an essay in linguistic aesthetic”.
George R. R. Martin has taken a similar approach, though a little less subtle with his references. The Stark and Lannister conflict was inspired by the Wars of the Roses, fought between the Houses of York and Lancaster. To get the flavour of Medieval England, he took names from that period and creatively tweaked them, just enough that they’re different but not too different that it’s jarring – like Edward to Eddard and Richard to Rickard/Rickon (this could also have been inspired by the fact that not everyone could even read or write their own name in Medieval England). He’s also done a great job at keeping his naming conventions consistent geographically. For example, the northern Houses (based on the Celtics of Britain) have simple, “strong”-sounding names: Stark, Umber, Glover; whereas the Valyrian characters’ names have a more exotic flair, with inspirations drawn from the Roman and Mongolian Empires, Egypt and even Tolkien’s Numenor – which is why there are more “y”s and “ae” combinations in names like Daenarys.
Aside from adding a sense of realism, taking names from history can help convey character traits or even foreshadow their fates. A great example of this technique is Jacqueline Carey, author of the Kushiel’s Legacy series. Phédre, the brilliant main character of the original trilogy, means “bright” in Greek”; her friend/foster brother Alcuin’s name comes from the Teutonic name meaning “noble friend”, and their mentor’s name, Anafiel, seems to be inspired by an angel named Anaphiel, created from the Hebrew root word “anaph”, meaning to cover or to shield. None of these names are common enough in our modern western culture to feel like they don’t belong in a fantasy novel, but the letter combinations and word structures are familiar enough that they don’t seem like they’ve been fabricated randomly in the author’s imagination either.
So some advice for writers wanting to give their characters imaginative yet realistic names, apart from creating their own languages? Look at history. Researching cultures and mythology can be a great inspiration even outside of character names, and taking ancient words and names with meaning, tweaking and combining them into your own can be just as creative as simply making up your own.