Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Spellcheck, bane of the fantasy writer

EDIT: This post contains vague references to (but no spoilers for) A Song of Ice and Fire/ HBO's Game of Thrones. I'm halfway through book five so I'll make the same threat I did for Patrick Rothfuss' A Wise Man's Fear: anyone who spoils the plot for me will be beaten over the head with the complete series box set. Because this blog is a friendly blog.

Since writing is hard and procrastinating is easy, I've been drawing up a list of names my spellcheck doesn't recognise. So far I've counted:

-Godric
-Eiya (not used for one but three characters, who form three generations of one family)
-Alaric
-Adailine
-Sylvann
-Ketrinn "Ketry"
-Elisande
-Saire (pr. sigh-ear)

And that's just in one story. Don't even get me started on Nissa, Carys, Audric, Guy (who spellcheck does recognise, but I didn't want to leave out), Josn, Adaya, Ilyana, Aya, Hrolf.... Some of them are real names too obscure to make it into spellcheck. Some are existing names (like Adeline or Sylvianne) pronounced a little differently. Some of them are cool sounds I've overheard, or existing names I've mashed around and pronounced in various funny accents until I get something that looks and sounds cool. Looks is really important: as a kid reading fantasy I'd imagine the shapes of words I couldn't pronounce properly in my head instead of the sounds that went with them, kind of like someone momentarily breaking off conversation to use flashcards. It was jarring but it worked and I came to love 'well-shaped' names like Hermione (it was a while before anyone told me it wasn't pronounced 'Hermin') and hate messy ones like 'Birle' (pronounced like Beryl, I discovered halfway through but by then I was already rhyming it with 'churl'). Look at the two names: Hermione, Birle. I'm not the only one who sees it, right?

To me a really important part of world building is the pool of names available. Like in the real world, there's there's going to be more than one Emma (or regional variant) even if some of them are minor characters. George R.R. Martin has a profusion of girls called Jeyne (not to mention boys called Walder Frey) but few other fantasy writers seem to use the same name twice, even when logic dictates that there are a finite number of names (or do fantasy characters just mash together random syllables when they name their children?) Also important is a sense of etymology of names. I don't mean like in Tolkien's (in)famous appendices but a living etymology, the way GRRM has different names that sound like they came off the same branch of the Great Name Tree. What are Edmure and Brynden if not regional variations on Eddard and Brandon, for example. And of course the history of the North is peppered with Jons, Rikkards and Brandons, while down South the Targareans seem to recycle a limited number of syllables into a string of Aegons, Aemons, Rhaellas, Rhaegars, etc as though they're too inbred to even allow new names into the family. I spend too much time trying to guess where the stranger names come from, if they have roots in our world at all. Sansa might come from Susan (anyone who's read kids books from the first half of the 20th century will know what I mean when I say that Sansa is such a Susan), Arya might possibly come from Harriet (in my head she will always be ah-RYE-ah, no matter how the TV series chooses to pronounce it) but I kind of hope GRRM made it just for her because its so small and strong and perfect for her that it just feels right.

I also like the way strange names can be Anglicised (for want of a better word), how Guillaime becomes William because if most English people today struggle to fit their mouths around it then pity the English of 1066. And in 2012 a girl sits around typing blog posts in her pajamas and playing at making familiar names sound strange.

What kind of name schemes do you prefer? Do you generate names yourself? Should I just be quiet now? Comments, queries and complaints all welcome.

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