Let’s talk about names in fantasy stories.
Not just character names, but place names, plant names, animal names. Any kind of name, for any kind of thing you can imagine.
Make a thing too exotic, your readers won’t remember them. Doubt me? OK, thought experiment: If I told you a character’s name was Autumn Star Jones, all three of those words has meaning for an English speaker. They’re sounds, but they’re sounds with a context in the language I’m using.
Now try this name for Autumn Star’s boyfriend: Kofulesq Cehlertsink. Again, they’re just sounds, but they’re completely random sounds for an English speaker. And the spelling: Do you have a clue how it’s pronounced? You’re already struggling with it.
The simple fact is that even when we’re trying to imagine a place that’s exotic to our own culture and history, the best tools we have for creating something better than random sounds and spellings are all the linguistic and cultural artifacts embedded in our readers’ imaginations. That’s why every culture in the Darbas Cycle is based on some kind of Earth analog. That’s why the map of the fictional planet has analogs to the map of Earth.
It’s a trade-off: Work from the human box of cultural and historical words and phrases and you risk creating stereotypes. But in return, you also activate the connotations that the reader brings to the experience.
One reader told me he thought the DuQaddish were based on Jews, for instance. I didn’t think that when I was writing, but … well, why not? If that connotation works for him, then the story becomes richer. I thought I was working from a set of pseudo-Slavic sounds, creating a cultural connection to Korvish-Sopka. He got that and heard Yiddish, or something like Hebrew. Either way: His reaction brought a deeper connection to the story that is inventive on his part, and now it’s a part of the creation for which I am the primary steward.
For the Mullaqat, who are as unlike Western culture as anything I’ve previously imagined, I knew I couldn’t work from a Western set of sounds. So I picked a non-Western language, ran English through Google Translate, smushed and pulled and twisted the output, and created a language, with rules and the basics of grammar and usage. It gives me interesting words and phrases, like peqyazi (a solitary Mullaqat) and safaqunuzi (a Mullaqat traveling group) and hurumulla tibwa (the free-floating perfection of the moment) or shosheadigo (the Little Stirring, or the painful first erotic desires of children and adolescents).
Why go through that trouble? Because to create names and words and thoughts that are exotic to Western experience without grounding them in something structured risks the creation of random names and rules that just don’t feel authentic to the culture I’m trying to create in another person’s imagination.
For the Gwynyrians, the rules aren’t so hard and fast. They’re patterned after Celtic people, like all the cultural inheritors of the mysterious Calpathians (which, by the way, is a name borrowed from outside the Celtic language and tradition, most closely related to the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe… and there’s a reason for that). They borrow words and traits from Wicca and other Goddess-worshipping traditions. They use the letter Y as a vowel quite a bit.
Which is all well and good. But if you’ve never written a story, you simply don’t know how taxing it can be to have to come up with names for everything. At some point I just stopped thinking specifically and settled for made-up words that merely sounded like they came from the established tradition. Yes, some are borrowed consciously from words I know, but others — like Orwyne and Amarynth, two Old Path religious orders — just kinda sounded good at the time I needed them.
So imagine my pleasure last week when our good friend Jean McGregor came to The Manor as a refugee from Hurricane Matthew. Jean’s a horticulturalist and something of a magical being in her own right, so it was a big deal to walk through the fields here with her, asking what each weed and plant might be.
Like the one in the top photo: “That’s amaranth,” she said. “It’s an ancient grain. Can you imagine how much work it would have been to get the kernels out of that?”
The book I’m writing now, Chene, is very much a Gwynyrian/Llyrian story, which makes it very much a story about religious orders. Amarynth — the aristocratic order that surrounds and supports Rowene, the Lady or Gwynyr (Rialta’s mother from A Madness and Siobeth) is front and center in Chene. To learn more about the plant from which I unconsciously took the name is an unexpected bonus — and full of surprises.
Amaranth is spiky and dense, prickly and subtly colored, like an impoverished, hardscrabble sensimilla bud. It’s not at all like what the sound of the word “Amarynth” originally made me imagine — all cut crystal and cool, gleaming tile — but now the plant informs my imagination, too. It gives me a new, deeper insight into the culture and qualities of an entire group of characters.
So what’s in a name? I don’t really know. But I suspect that when you write about magic, you must be open to the ways that magic opens before you.