Ask Robin on a Monday
So I rang a very nice touch of Stedman Doubles tonight at Old Eden where the calls were all in weird places (which is something that happens with frelling Stedman*) and I had to perform both cats’ ears and coathangers** and I did it all*** and I feel all flushed with success.† And this morning wasn’t half bad either.†† So while I’m feeling as if I have the answers to everything††† I thought I’d tackle an Ask Robin.
My question is about characters’ names. I’ve tried writing some fantasy stories, so I know how hard it can be to come up with new, mythical-sounding names. But when you do it, there seems to be a system to the names. What I mean is that although the names are completely made up, groups of names fit the cultures/countries they are in. I’m thinking particularly of the Damar names, where the names all fit the Damarian culture and linguistic sound, even though the culture and the names are all fictional. Do you have a system for coming up with names? I heard from one writer that he takes common names and re-invents their spelling so that they look exotic. Do you do anything like that? Or do they just come to you?
At least some of the answer to this is somewhere on the web site, but I can’t find it. I would have sworn it was in the FAQ under one of those general writery questions, but . . . I can’t find it. Arrgh. So if this looks kind of familiar to you and you can find it . . . will you please tell me where it is?
I’m also amused that the asker says ‘groups of names fit the cultures/countries they are in’. Yaay. Success. One of the biggest, hairiest challenges about writing fantasy or science fiction is making your ‘imaginary’ countries and creatures feel real, feel like a consistent whole—or an inconsistent one, for that matter, the way the sometimes-more-and-sometimes-less consensual reality we live in here is so often drastically inconsistent.
But much of Damar is a fairly unified culture—as are Balsinland and Rhiandomeer in PEGASUS—and so the names, the rituals and traditions, the habits and history, need to feel as if they hang together: they need to look and smell and taste and sound right. What an appalling prospect. I am so grateful I’m not making this stuff up.
Now I have said in the FAQ that I don’t make this stuff up: it’s more like it happens to me. This is not to say it’s easy; it isn’t.‡ First there’s the trying to take notes in the whirlwind aspect: even if you manage to hang onto your notebook‡‡ you may be picked up and thrown several hundred or several thousand miles off-course . . . possibly even into the wrong frelling story. Well, what you think is the wrong frelling story. There is also a good bit of Helen Keller at the water-pump: you know there’s a world out there, and there’s this new person who keeps following you around and won’t leave you alone, but what is she trying to tell you?
But if you’re a storyteller and this is your story, you’ll eventually make the connections you need to make, and start looking and listening and feeling around in the dark for the stuff you need to know. I literally‡‡‡ see and hear a lot of the background to a story—mostly in way too dazzling detail—and which frequently doesn’t fit together, and then I have to try to figure out why it doesn’t fit together, or skip that bit as beyond me.§ I hear most of the major characters’ names—and when I’m lucky, most of the minor ones’ too—by the simple expedient of hanging around listening to them talking to each other. Eventually they’ll call each other by name. I heard Ebon’s name just the way it happened to Sylvi: They really don’t tell you anything, do they? I’ve known you were Sylvi forever. My name is Ebon. Sylvi’s own name bothered me for months—I was sure (I was almost sure) I was hearing it right, but there was still something wrong. It wasn’t till I heard her spoken to in some formal ritual or other—and I don’t even remember which one—that I found out it was short for Sylviianel, and then I felt a lot better.
Occasionally I cannot, cannot, cannot hear someone’s name, and then I do have to try to make it up, based on what fragments or nicknames§§ I am hearing, and what I have by then learnt about the language. But I hate this. I’m always sure I’m wrong.
My jaw drops at ‘I heard from one writer that he takes common names and re-invents their spelling so that they look exotic.’ My reaction is totally ewwww. But every writer is different. If I found myself doing that I’d be certain I was in the wrong story and start looking around for a whirlwind to catapult me somewhere else. But this is only the way I work; if that’s what works for him, and he gets good stories out of it, then that’s all that matters.
Good stories are what matter. Write that down.
* * *
* It has to do with the fact that the treble, which in most methods has an easier path through the maze, moves just like all the other working bells, which in Stedman is a very maze-like track indeed.
** Sic. It has to do with what the line looks like on the page. Cats’ ears actually do look like a kid’s drawing of a cat’s ears. Coathangers don’t look anything like coathangers.
*** We will not get into the total frelling mess I made of ringing the four to Very Little Bob. The four squats in the middle of the pattern making thirds and fourths while the other five bells do fancy dances around her. The point is supposed to be that it will teach me what thirds and fourths feel like, which will help my Cambridge, which has lots of thirds and fourths in it. Wrong. It just felt like a really really bad bit of Cambridge that went on and on.
† The hellhounds even ate dinner again. Gaah. Last night we had some lamb mince left over so I put it in their supper. Aaaugh! What is this! What are you doing to us! Death! Poison! Betrayal! Goblins! Darkness eventually got over it. Chaos didn’t. Next generation of domestic fauna it’s goldfish. Plastic goldfish.
†† We had a special service for some saint or other at Old Eden. I spent most of it on the five, which, of all Old Eden’s possessed-by-demons bells, is the worst. But we were only ringing simple stuff so no one noticed that the five and I were locked in an epic battle for mastery. This is almost as great a triumph as a touch of Stedman Doubles.
††† Possibly even how PEG II ends. I said possibly.
‡ Ringing the fifth bell at Old Eden is a doddle in comparison.
‡‡ Or your laptop
‡‡‡ If ‘literally’ bothers you, feel free to choose your own adverb. ‘Madly’ might do. Or ‘obstinately’.
§ Note: sigh. It happens. Or anyway it happens to me.
§§ ‘Yo! Dumbhead!’
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