Here’s a piece I did for that really rather top fellow, Abhinav Jain, to publish on his blog, Angels of Retribution. It’s part of Names: A New Perspective, a series of guest blogs by writers about what their attitude is to naming and language in speculative fiction. Re-reading mine, I sound like a grumpy bastard. Hang, that’s because I am a grumpy bastard. Ah me. I also use the word “important” a lot. Makes me sound pompous. I’m probably that too.
Using names in fiction
The usage of names in any fiction is really important; really, really important. Okay, not important in the same kind of way that brilliant characters, gripping pacing, memorable action, superb themes and amazing insight into the human condition are, but important nonetheless.
Although not of the top tier of good writing tricks, effective naming of place and people in fiction is part of the stage dressing, that raggle-taggle collection of details of that suck you in to a story and makes it seem real. Of course, getting this right won’t make a rubbish story good, but it can make a good story great. If a story has a plausible setting, then it’s more engaging. Engagement with one’s reader is good.
I’ve lost count of the number of so-so fantasy books (especially fantasy books) which bundle together a whole load of place names culled from across time and space, Greek, Latin-esque and pseudo-Arabian types are particularly common. Often, there’s no rhyme or reason as to why these cultures have names that sound the way they do, and often the names aren’t consistent within a particular culture. You might think having a country called Thrace next to one called Mercia sounds right, to me it’s as jarring as two princely fantasy brothers called Bobby and Haqqim.
In the real world, languages are all related to one another, they spring, like lineages of people, from common ancestral stock; they meet and marry, and produce offspring, they copy and borrow from each other, they change radically as they age, they wither and die. Like ebbing tides they leave their marks on the beach of earthly culture. They form geographical contiguities where language sounds all of a piece, even though, as one travels, it might shift into another tongue entirely. And these blocks of language, these families, they have relationships with word and names and sounds from other cultures. Real words and names and sounds all have reasons to be.
JRR Tolkien understood this, but then, Tolkien was a philologist, among other things. You don’t have to go to the same level of detail as Tolkien; he’s unusual, in fact, as his worlds are built on language. His stories began life as vehicles for his linguistic playfulness. For many writers, this would be putting cart before horse. But that’s not to say we can’t at least try to make the places we create and people we endow with life seem that little bit more real by paying attention to what’s written on the name tags in their underpants. When dealing with the fantastic it’s important to make the mundane elements as believable as we can, for a solid stage of considered reality is fantasy’s best chance, with its magic and supernatural beasts, at achieving some form verisimilitude. The languages we make don’t have to actually exist, but through our characters names, we have to at least make it seem that there is a real language that gave rise to the terms we invent. If that’s too much bother, choose one, real-world language for a culture, and stick to it when writing. Don’t mix and match. That’s really naughty.
Put it like this. Good writing is like luxury. Luxury, in many cases, is merely the commonplace elevated, and it is elevated by attention to detail. Writing is elevated by detail. Detail costs; for writers it costs time as luxury costs money, but it’s a coin well worth spending. I’ll give you an example. In Paul Linebarger’s (Cordwainer Smith) Instrumentality of Mankind universe, there is a planet called Nostrilia. The name was originally Old North Australia, but the passage of time has shortened it to Norstrilia. Simple, thoughtful, and linguistically “true” (as much as fiction represents any kind of truth).
Thought like this put into the window dressing of SF and fantasy – the cartography (don’t get me started on the awful topographies of fantasy maps), the orthography, the nomenclature – pay off big time when it comes to the suspension of disbelief, and that is one of the key pillars of any entertainment. This is why convincing names are important.