Noodles, self-help groups and airplane parts: things to avoid when making up fantasy names

Emmet’s reading Acacia by this year’s John W. Campbell Award winner David Anthony Durham. It is labeled book one of “War with the Mein.” This led me to pondering that common pitfall of making up fantasy names: hitting on something that already means something else, and is thus inadvertently funny. “Mein” to me means “noodles” as in “chow mein” and “lo mein.” I don’t know if it’s authentic Chinese or Western restaurant Chinese. Because I’m aware it means noodles, I find it hard to take it entirely seriously as the name of an evil enemy. Next, bring on “the war with the linguini!” and “the war with the tortellini!” Fantasy names create atmosphere, and this is not the atmosphere you want unless you’re Robert Asprin.

While it’s easy to laugh at, it can be hard to avoid. Where are writers going to find a four letter word that doesn’t mean something in some language? If you’re going for pronounceable, probably there isn’t anything. (And nobody wants them called Gfnp, because for one thing the readers might want to talk about them, and for another what if the book’s really successful and they do an audio version?) The best that’s possible is to avoid things that have immediate risibility to English speaking readers. I mean I know “Acacia” is a plant but hearing it as the name doesn’t make me giggle. I asked Emmet if there were any other funny names in the book, and he told me that the founder of the royal line is called Edifus.

Durham’s names are far from the worst example of this I can think of, though they are the most recent. Terry Brooks has a wizard called Allanon. Al-Anon is the name of the organization that Alcoholics Anonymous has set up for the friends and families of alcoholics. If you google “allanon” you get a whole lot of hits for Al-Anon. But how was Brooks to know? The Sword of Shannara was written before Google, and while it was twenty years after Al-Anon was founded, if Mr. Brooks didn’t know anyone with an alcoholic problem he might well never have heard of it. I think this is forgivable. Still, while the books have been wildly successful, there have also been a lot of sniggers.

And then there’s Aileron, the young king of Fionavar in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry. His father’s called Aillel, which is an actual Irish name, and Aileron sounds as if it easily could be an Irish name in the same tradition—but in fact it’s a part of an airplane. This didn’t need Google, a dictionary check would have caught it. The Fionavar books are excellent, beautifully written, a serious high fantasy series that does a whole lot of things right. I’ve always loved them—but I’ve always winced at Aileron. It could have been fixed so easily by naming him Aileran, if Kay or anyone at any stage at the publisher had been aware or wanted to fix it. Kay says the name’s pronounced Ah-LEER-on, and he never thought anyone would have a problem with it.

Even Tolkien, whose names are generally wonderful, had the occasional slip up. The elven city of Gondolin stands on a hill called Tuna. (What?) And I think I’ve mentioned that I’ve never read Jack Vance because the title Servants of the Wankh was a standing joke among British fans.

I have done this myself, incidentally. I wrote a story that needed a standard fantasy kingdom name, and I called it Porphyria. I liked the way it meant purple, I thought it had an imperial feel. I liked the way it sounded slightly pompous and standard—it was just what I wanted. Fortunately, before the story was published one of my first readers pointed out that it was the name of a disease. It was too late to find something else that felt right, but I quickly changed it to Porphylia. Thank you again, Nancy Lebovitz, for saving me from looking like an idiot.

So, what’s the solution? Writers should google the names for characters and places before they get too attached to them. Yes, this means googling lots of names, in the cases of some books lots and lots, but it’s worth it—it’s better to spend a whole afternoon discovering whether your characters’ names are noodles, self-help groups and airplane parts than to have people giggling at them forever once it’s too late to change.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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