“Every writer making a secondary world wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it.” ~J.R.R. Tolkien
Names—I haz ‘em: Lots of ‘em. My trilogy is based on the world of the epic culture clash between the Germanic tribe of the Goths and the ancient Roman Empire. Tom Shippey, Tolkien’s biographer, makes a case in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, that for Tolkien everything started with the names. I took him to heart. One of the first things I did, before I wrote a single line of prose, was to come up with the names.
I just found my notes, dated January ’04 (I started outlining the story in November of ’03). I made lists of Gothic, Old Norse, Greek, and Latin words I thought were pertinent to the story and the world I wanted to create. I invented names not only for characters, but for nations, tribes, cities, seas, provinces, empires (yes, plural), oaths, clans, religious elements and ceremonies. I have characters with invented names as well as invented titles, and even invented nicknames. I even named a few swords (are you scared yet?). Heck, I even named the horses; over a dozen of them (now you’re scared, right?).
“Names, especially names which are not strictly necessary, weight a narrative with the suggestion of reality.” ~Tom Shippey
Namey-Namer: So did I do this just to emulate my literary hero? Just to be clever? Well, maybe those were a tiny part of it. But it turned out to be a very immersive exercise. In some cases, I’m not sure if I created the name to fit the character or the character emerged from the name. For example, my heroine’s name is Ainsela. She is the daughter of a warrior queen, and her birth was associated with the coming of a prophesied upheaval for her people. In the ancient Gothic language, áin is one, but áina is a ‘particular’ one—it denotes a certain or special singularity. Sela is a Greek moon goddess, but in Gothic a silda is a wonder or a marvel. Ainsela’s tribe’s patron goddess is a Teutonic moon goddess, Horsella, who is also the patron of untamed nature and all things wild. Hence, Ainsela is ‘the special one, a marvel, born of untamed nature.’
Yes, I did something like this for every one of my names. Not all of them were quite this elaborate, but they all have meaning. Some I just had fun with, for example the names of two of the Roman antagonists. Malvius is rooted in the Latin malevelle: of evil intent. And Turgian is from the Latin turgere: to swell (as in his head, with pride).
Submariner: In the pursuit of creating my own distinct world, and in the interests of relating the story without the encumbrance of historical facts, I even changed the names of all ‘real’ places and peoples. I made the Romans into Tiberians, the Goths into the Gottari, and so on. I explain why in a bit more depth on the homepage of my website in a post called The Origin of Epic, but to summarize, I did it to gain a bit of distance from the readers’ preconceptions. I was hoping to accomodate total submersion in my world, to take readers on a voyage without having them bring their baggage onboard the sub. As Tolkien says above, I was hoping not just to draw on reality, but in the creation of a peculiar quality derived from Reality, and that this Reality would then flow into my world. I wanted the reader to lose themselves not in historical detail, but in story. I know there will be those of you who feel otherwise, but I believe that by suspending disbelief through world-building, the best historical fantasy actually puts the spotlight on story, thereby enhancing the emotional experience.
It can get a bit complicated, but so can actual history. In the interest of simplifying, I made up a glossary doc. In the beginning it was just a reference for me. It has over 150 entries. I ended up rewriting it in the voice of the trilogy, including a pronunciation key for each entry, and I offer it out to beta readers. I’ve had several say they enjoyed having it, a few saying it was a necessity, and one saying it intimidated her so much she never read the book. But most have said they hardly gave it a glance.
Literary Trip, or Trip-up? I know what some (if not most or all) of you are thinking. Something like: Are you nuts? Why would you trip up the reader? Why make it any harder for folks to get into your story? Why add something that will make it more difficult to get published? The names don’t have anything to do with the story, right?
To answer those questions, in order: Perhaps (by whose definition?); It’s not my intention; I hope it doesn’t, and that for certain readers it’ll aid in their submersion into story; Because being published wasn’t on my mind when I started; And that last one is a bit complicated, and perhaps is my point here (in case it’s not evident). For me, story emerges in part from world-building, and world-building emerges from names. So for me, the names have quite a bit to do with the story that emerged (I’m still a pantser, after all).
I understand that a lot of the ‘tripping up’ of readers by names can be avoided through their judicious introduction, through their being woven into the fabric of story deftly, and I’m working on it. But I am pretty darn fond of them, and couldn’t be easily convinced to change too many of them. I mean, there was a time when names like Frodo and Gandalf, Hogwarts and Dumbledore all sounded bizarre, but can you imagine any other name for any of those?
Back to those hunks of steel: The two named swords in my trilogy (Nahtsrein and Bairtah-Urrin for those who are interested—Ruler of the Night and Bringer of Light, respectively) are not magical. But they are more than mere weapons. They are emblematic of the leadership of the two ruling clans of the Gottari. They are just symbols, analogies for power—their importance placed upon them by the Gottari people. And isn’t that what story really boils down to? Stories are symbolic analogies for life.
So what’s in a name? Quite a bit… In my book, anyway.
What about you? Do you think I’m nuts? (On second thought, don’t answer that.) Do names trip you up? Do you think this is all just geek-speak, reminding you why you don’t read historical fantasy? Or do you feel names can enhance the story? Or do they make no difference, as long as the story’s good?