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

I had fun today making a voice recording of the character names for my forthcoming audiobook, Beautiful, which is based on the Nordic fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon [1]. This was to assist the narrator, who will be recording the book this month. As I got my tongue around Bjalta, Gudolf and Solvej, I decided the topic of character names deserved a revisit. As a writer of historical fantasy, I love to discover or create names that will not only suit individual characters, but will be appropriate to the world and culture of the story. Naming your characters well helps you to create the consistent, convincing world all fantasy writers strive for – the world that your reader can believe in from the first page.

Of course, clever naming enhances any genre of fiction. How could Gabriel Oak be anything but trustworthy, a man close to nature? Bathsheba Everdene suggests an unconventional, strong-minded woman – perhaps Katniss Everdeen shares some of her characteristics. Wackford Squeers is a sadistic man, Philip Pirrip (Pip for short) is an innocent. And what about Severus Snape, Albus Dumbledore, Luna Lovegood and countless other characters from the Harry Potter books? The naming style used by Dickens and Hardy suits J K Rowling’s fantasy well, providing consistency and humour.

When you’re writing historical fantasy, by which I mean either a story set in real world history but with supernatural elements, or a story set in an invented world that is based on a ‘real world’ period and culture, effective naming starts with a knowledge and love of your historical period (or the implied period.) Sure, you’re not writing a history book or even historical fiction, you’re playing with history. But that doesn’t mean anything goes. Newbie writers sometimes mix periods, cultures and languages freely when creating their world, and that can create jarring notes for the reader. A solid knowledge of your historical period and culture, including an understanding of language and naming, will help you to build a convincing world complete with whatever magical elements your imagination chooses to weave in. Hands up who’s been guilty of giving a character an anachronistic name? I’ve done that, but I won’t do it again. Remember the golden rule for fantasy writers: your world should be internally consistent. Names should match the implied period and culture. If you choose to depart from that, make sure you do so consistently and for a reason that makes sense within the rules of your world. The reader needs to know you’ve done it by choice, not sloppiness.

But wait, I hear you say. Isn’t this rather a rigid approach? Most readers won’t care about all this. They just want to be entertained.

True in part. But excellent world building is key to excellent fantasy writing, and great names are a vital part of your world building. You can’t write a compelling story without engaging characters, and a name is a significant part of a character. Without careful naming, you risk breaking that golden rule and creating an inconsistent world. That will jar with readers whether or not they know why. So get it right from the start. Don’t just write  an OK book, write the most excellent book you can.

Inspiration for names can come from some unusual sources. Generally I set my books in real historical periods and real parts of the world, with uncanny elements based on the folk beliefs of the period and place.  I research history and language before I name my characters.

Beautiful [2], which is now in production, presented a new challenge. The north wind features in the original fairy tale, which involves a white bear and a long trek to find the Troll Queen’s palace, which lies East of the Sun and West of the Moon. It’s pure fairy tale, full of magic, and does not belong to any particular period in history. The origins of that story told me my central character lived somewhere mountainous and snowy, similar to Norway or Finland. So I used some evocative Nordic names for characters: Hulde, Rune, Laerke. But my version of the story also has a cast of Hill Folk, non-human characters who live underground and are known for their clever building work. I decided their names should reflect their close relationship with the mountain in all its strength and its changing moods. Where did I go for inspiration? To the wonderful Landmarks [3] by Robert MacFarlane, a book that hunts out and celebrates nature words that are in danger of being lost from our vocabulary. I found many words there that worked wonderfully as names, including those of a pair of intrepid brothers, Skord and Slaag. You’ll have to read Landmarks to find out what their names mean! I tried to choose words from a single geographical area – that way they have a consistent sound. The names are a little challenging for the audiobook narrator, hence the need for me to record them, but I’m sure she’ll do a wonderful job.

When an author does character names stylishly, it adds a whole additional layer of depth to the narrative. Some great examples in historical fantasy are Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy [4] series, set in what is and is not Renaissance Europe (this broadens to a wider geographical area in the later books), and Sebastien de Castell’s Greatcoats [5] series, set in an invented world but deliberately evocative of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Both authors create names that are not quite Italian, or not quite French, or not quite something else, but which are entirely convincing in their context. It’s always clear which linguistic group they belong to, and, more importantly, the names suit the characters. Not actually so easy, especially when you’re dealing with a huge cast over a four or six book series. Bravo!

I know there are many fantasy writers in the Writer Unboxed community. I’d love to hear how you go about naming your characters (and by extension, places.) Are you careful to keep names consistent, and if so how do you do it? Do you choose names for their meaning, for their sound, or for some other reason? Does a knowledge of languages other than English help you in your world building, including names? What are your favourite character names from fantasy?

Image credit: ID 130068519 © Tartilastock [6] | Dreamstime.com [7]


About Juliet Marillier [9]

Juliet Marillier [10] has written twenty-four novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world and have won numerous awards. Juliet is currently working on a historical fantasy trilogy, Warrior Bards, of which the third book, A Song of Flight, will be published in August/September 2021. Her collection of reimagined fairy tales, Mother Thorn, will have a trade release in April 2021. Mother Thorn is illustrated by Kathleen Jennings and published by Serenity Press. When not writing, Juliet looks after Reggie, her elderly rescue dog.