Let’s Talk About: Fantasy Side Character Names

So, last Friday, a friend wrote to commend me for my recent spree of posts.

In particular, he mentioned last week’s Let’s Talk About, saying it actually helped him, because he was considering writing some fantasy but was afraid he’d unwittingly use a few genre tropes.

So, with that in mind–and because I love writing about fantasy’s pitfalls–I decided to talk about the names of fantasy side characters and why it’s really easy for them to be super terrible.

The thing is, fantasy is a genre that requires its writers to create everything. Characters, settings, languages, trends . . .

And, naturally, names.

Now, all of us go in hard when it comes to making up the names of protagonists. If you’re a fantasy writer who’s anything like me, you usually put your favorite sounds into main character names.

In fact, I often find myself reserving those sounds for main character names, even if I don’t realize it.

And sometimes, if I stumble onto a good name, I save it . . . for main characters.

And I know I’m not the only fantasy writer who does all of this . . .

. . . because of names like “Len.”

And “Kel.”

And “Tam.”

Names that make up the pantheon of monosyllabic, fantasy side character names.

Now, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, I’m not trying to name names here; I never want to pick on particular writers, so if these names are used in one of your favorite series, apologies in advance–I didn’t know.

I’m also not talking about nicknames here (I know “Kel” is short for Sanderson’s “Kelsier,” and I love that character and super respect the man who created him).

More than anything, I’m not saying that I’m the Name Master–I basically just explained how I horde names for main characters, and I meant that.

What I am saying though is that the fantasy genre has a crappy-single-syllable-names-for-unimportant-side-characters problem. Particularly such names that are only three letters long–sometimes four, but with one letter repeated.

And, because I don’t want to keep making statements that sound like horrible, sweeping generalizations, I’ll relate all of this to myself from now on.

I struggle with this problem.

In the best novel I’ve completed so far, Memory, there exists the protagonist’s friend, Penn. Before that, in War of Exiles, I had a bunch of side characters with incredibly lazy names, my favorite of which was, and still is, “Cel.”
Now, this isn’t to say that I can never give side characters short names, but, in my experience, a short name like Penn or Cel . . . almost guarantees that the character attached to it doesn’t matter. In fact, there’s about a 95% chance they’ll be dead in two chapters.

I mean, being real about it, Penn is absolutely dead before Memory even starts.

Cel didn’t die over the course of War of Exiles, but I believe she had only one line of dialogue, at best.

It’s so bad of a trend in my fiction that the exact opposite is also true: having a rad-as-fuck name almost guarantees a side character will survive. In fact, I once texted someone about it, joking about how I just couldn’t throw away a cool name like that (and I believe I was talking about WoE’s Yodesmar, who lives on to this day).

And, maybe it’s just my hatred for spoilers, but I find that seeing all of this in fantasy fiction–finding a short side character name in a novel–while not always disruptive, absolutely destroys my immersion. Not in a “Why is that knight named Marty?” way, but in an “I just got a glimpse into the writer’s mind and hold on while I say goodbye to ‘Jek'” way.

Now, not all fantasy writers indulge in throwaway names, but I will say that some writers do. Even published ones, although they’re more likely to create side characters with lazy-sounding names that are still powerful and meaningful to the plot.

But, regardless, what I want to say here is that it’s incredibly easy for any fantasy writer to broadcast their intentions with monosyllabic side character names.

Significantly less easy: making sacrifices for realism.

Fixing It

The easiest solution for me was to start taking down names that I hear in my day-to-day. If I like it, I write it down.

And then I use it.

For any character it suits.

The Hand and the Tempest is currently riddled with such names, and the effect is awesome; everyone sounds like a living person, no matter how far in the background they are.

Even Becco, Modis’ best friend, who we may never see in the novel, is believable as a real kid who probably loves food.

There may be a simpler solution (mixing long, elaborate  names with short, lazy names to keep readers guessing), but if you have to kill your darlings to write better fiction . . .

. . . then do it.

Later, Becco. I liked you so much that I was considering using you as Modis’ new name.

~~~

Well, that was a fun one. I hope it helped someone. I also hope I didn’t just sound like a judgmental asshole.

Tune in tomorrow for I-have-absolutely-no-idea-what!

Until then, thanks for reading! And, as always, write well!

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