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. 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.