What's in a name? Naming Characters in Fantasy Worlds | Official Author Website of Melissa McPhail

What’s in a Name? Naming Characters in Fantasy Worlds

“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” 

So says Juliet in her soliloquy about Romeo. As Shakespeare points out, names are a combination of symbols, associated with sounds, which are assigned to represent a person or thing in our minds. Often times in life, the superficiality of a name might be given undue importance.

Yet in the Fantasy genre, names are vital.  The names of characters, of places, even of magical implements, play a huge role in defining the world. Think of how many names define our existing world, bringing with their utterance (aloud or in mind) an entire concept of some part of our culture or history: Rome, Cleopatra, Paris, the Rose Bowl, Neal Armstrong, Starbucks.

When an author is creating a new world, whole cloth, out of their imagination, none of these cultural influences exist.  Choosing a name, then, involves more than a cursory glance through a baby names book.  The author will be building a concept of an entire culture or history around the names he or she chooses.

In my experience, certain names resonate.  They have texture and tone.  They can imply benevolence or evil in their utterance, and they can even engender certain connotations across a broad audience.  The syllables of particular names impart a lightness, darkness or beauty to the character or place.  Names often call upon the reader’s own experience to lay additional shades upon the character, making the reader’s journey with that character uniquely their own.

Take the name Alyneri, the headstrong yet secretly fragile Healer of Cephrael’s Hand.  Unless you’ve known an Ally/Allison that broke your heart, stole your man or otherwise did you wrong, you may find “Aly” to be a fairly innocuous name.  Many of us think of Aly’s as sweet and unprepossessing.  They’re often associated with girls that are cute or pretty.  It’s the rare occasion that someone hears “Aly” and thinks of a girl they’d like to strangle.

Breaking apart the syllables further, “lyn” is also fairly benign, while “neri” hints at something elvish, magical or otherworldly.  Alyneri then, as a name, imparts quiet beauty and a mystical quality ever before you as the reader delve too deeply into her character.

The Kabalarian Society has created an entire religious structure around the meaning of names.  Here’s what they say about the name “Alyn”:

  • Your first name, Alyn, makes you self-reliant, creative in practical ways, and an independent diligent worker.
  • You work best alone making your own decisions as it is not always easy for you to respond to the advice and direction of others as you feel the need to be in control.
  • Living much within your own thoughts and finding it challenging to communicate easily with others, you are, at times, too candid and honest in your assessment of situations.
  • You feel this separation from others and would give anything to be always lighthearted and friendly instead of serious and shy.
  • Although the name Alyn creates the urge to be original and self-reliant, we emphasize that it limits self-expression and friendly congeniality with a moody disposition.

If you know Alyneri, you know this description is uncannily true.  Yet I didn’t consult the Kabalarians before deciding on Alyneri’s name.

Where this is heading?

I’ve heard from some readers that they struggle with the names in Cephrael’s Hand. I admit, there are a few which might be difficult to pronounce.  Dhábu’balaji’şridanai, for example, would be a mouthful even for a Sanskrit scholar (the language on which the name is based). But the drachwyr and the Malorin’athgul are ancient creatures. They’re not going to have names like Bob and Joe. Like the Kabalarians believe, the drachwyr’s names have meaning and impart purpose to their bearers. I doubt many readers would find it plausible that a simple name like John Jones translates into He Who Walks The Edge of the World.

When you head, then, into reading Cephrael’s Hand and possibly bristle at the many names of people and places—especially the drachwyr—understand that each name has been selected in order to help build that cultural structure in your own imagination. It may not be apparent, but it is for your sake that I’ve included so many names, both simple and complex, that Alorin might come alive in your own mind and become associated with as many rich and wondrous connotations as that of Ancient Rome.

(To assist those of you who are pronunciation-challenged, I’ve included a guide for the more difficult names in the Dramatis Personae.)

How do you come up with your Fantasy names?  I would love to know your thoughts.


4 Responses to “What’s in a Name? Naming Characters in Fantasy Worlds”

  1. Erik says:

    Melissa, This was a really interesting piece. I’ve noticed for years that certain names will resonate with me. Not having the insight into the writer’s mind that you’ve shared with us here, I don’t know the process used to create them – but years later, I feel like Drizzt, Gollum, Voldemort and Asmodeus (Asimov’s most pleasurable creation) are still a part of my life, and I can’t imagine their names being anything else. They summon an entire beingness, complete with emotional tone, purpose, flaws, etc. it was the unique nature of Paksenarrion’s name, actually, that helped me hunt down Elizabeth Moon’s novel years after I’d forgotten it’s title. Names do matter, The Bard’s fragrant words notwithstanding.

    Thanks for an inspiring piece.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Thanks for your comment, Erik. I have that manifestation also with certain names that have stayed with me long after I’ve set the book back on my shelf. Like thinking of a place I’ve once visited, hearing or seeing the name again recalls an entirely different universe into being – that universe of whichever book the name emerged from. Names are the Penseives of the fantasy genre. 😉

  2. Darius says:

    I truly admire how much you make available to a reader and fans of fantasy. Not since Tolkien have I experienced an environment as rich in story as depth of universe. I don’t place much importance on a name, yet there is little doubt that those that do must delight in the feast presented to them in cephrael’s hand. I am reading the book a second time now and the experience is different – more rich somehow. I find myself taking the time to pronounce the names; after all – what is in a name? Only the significance we place upon it; for truly language is an ineffective means of conveying anything…

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Thanks, Darius. I agree – names bring a richness to the story. They become markers around which we pin new ideas and images as presented by the author, and eventually they come to represent broad concepts relating specifically to that world. Names are the landmarks of a fantasy story.

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