Real and unreal names

Rambling thoughts, as I try to name a character.

Lots of fantasy and science fiction feature made-up names. Some of them look more made-up than others — but there are ways and ways of looking made-up, aren’t there? When The Tropic of Serpents came out, I recall reading a review where the person complained about having difficulty with the made-up fantasy names in that book . . . in a way that strongly suggested they had no trouble with Dagmira, Vystrana, Drustanev, or any of the other equally invented names from the first book. But of course those are all recognizably European in style, while names like Ankumata n Rumeme Gbori are meant to look African instead. I don’t recall anymore what Smithsonian article I was reading at the time, therefore can’t look up the place name I came across in it, but it was something from a Pacific Northwestern Native American language, and it looked like the kind of thing beginning fantasy writers get told to avoid at all costs: a mash of “unpronounceable” consonants and apostrophes. But it isn’t unpronounceable, of course; it only looks that way to your average Anglophone reader, who isn’t used to dealing with phonemes in that configuration. Result: a name of that sort often looks fake and made-up, even when it isn’t.

And then there’s the other direction — what I’ve mentally dubbed Babar names. CVCVC, consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel-consonant. There are a LOT of these in fantasy, because apparently when an Anglophone brain is fumbling for letters and trying to arrange them into a name, this is the pattern it’s most likely to default to? Or else strong influence from somebody in the genre, but I don’t know who; Tolkien was not very prone to Babar names at all. (Rohan, sure, but you can’t say it was a dominant pattern with him. He was too much of a linguist for that.) These can be perfectly real too, of course, in a variety of different languages. But they’ve started to look fake to me in fantasy novels simply because I’ve seen so many of them. There are so many other ways to put phonemes together! This character I’m trying to name, he was originally Khimos and now he’s Ilan and I’m not happy with either of those in part because they’re just one step away from a Babar name, CCVCVC and VCVC. There’s someone else in that story whose name comes from the same language and she’s Vranatzin Iskovri. That looks like a real name to me. It has internal logic, even if I’m the only one who knows what it is. And yeah, it’s more difficult to pronounce, but if I only stay within the zone of what’s familiar and easy to an Anglophone reader, I’m ignoring a whole swath of possibility. I just wrote a series where people have names like Iljish and Yeyuama and Heali’i and Nour and Thu Phim Lat. I intend to keep that kind of variety going.

I just need this guy to cooperate. You’re important to this story, dude; you need a name I’m going to be happy with, something that will look real to me. Aadet took forever and a day to accept a name, but even he had one by the time I got to him in the story. You? I’ve got a complete first draft and I still don’t like yours. C’mon. We can do better than this.

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