Behynd the Name

My neck is thinnish. Not Audrey Hepburn thin, thank goodness, but a bit on the delicate, feminine side. Yes, it wouldn't take anything to chop my head off, I dare say. And I'm sticking it out there alongside Katie's in the matter of fantasy. She had a real bang-up post on the topic the other day that I couldn't help agreeing with, amending (or clarifying) her statement of "I don't really like fantasy" by saying "I don't like fantasy that is cliche, overdone, overbaked, overwrought, unimaginative..." It was a good post; you should read it. And I heartily agree with her, though I'm sure one could make the same assessment of just about any genre out there. There is the mighty mass of bad, and there are the good few.

But we know this sort of thing! We're good, educated, literatured citizens, some of us positive bibliophibians. We're trained to sniff out the good from the bad. I was happy to leave Katie's post and trundle on, whistling a happy tune, content that a fellow writer had struck a blow in favour of decent reading and writing.

And then I tripped on it. Walking across the blogosphere, I went and put my foot in it, and nearly my face, and after a brief and horrified stare at what I saw I felt the resolve harden in me. Something had to be done. No one had said anything yet. Something had to be done. I sailed into the living room, yardstick in hand doubling as a walking-stick that was very elegant in my own mind, arrested my poor unsuspecting husband, and told him in no uncertain terms (save that the fury in my head was tangling my tongue up) that some thing had to be done! My poor husband, taking me in stride as always, absolutely the best ever, laughed at me in a way that I took to be encouraging and my mind was made up. For better or for worse, for axe and for block, for liberty and the right to name characters, I was going to speak up.

It's the Y.

Have you noticed? Have you seen it? It's a cad, it really is, sneaking into one's fantasy, worming its way into the names of your characters, displacing otherwise law-abiding i's, all the while assuring you that it is making your character's name look "foreign" and "elegant" and "fantastic." That Y could sell washing machines to the devil. In the blink of an eye it becomes the defining, the tell-tale, the betraying mark of amateur fantasy. Oh, don't think I'm exempt. I keep a list of names I have invented over the years, most of them from my very early years. I don't use the list anymore because the names are so outlandish and painful, but it's a good example of what I am talking about. Take a look.

Ranviyer
Erynion
Elyason
Vanayel
Ithylen
Althya
Kyrry
Ryne
Jyny
Tym

I'll cease abusing your eyes. As you can see, these names are ridiculous, some of them positively unpronounceable, but all of them somehow distinctly belonging to a fantasy story. The fantastic, the otherworldly, hangs, not upon the character's personality or upbringing or nationality or customs, but upon the weirdness of his name. That's a slender and amateur thread on which to hang the fantasy of your story.

In favour of the Y I will say that its use is not a universal cop-out. Koby and Brandewyn, which are also in my list, manage to get away with it because Koby is a name you might find anywhere and Brandewyn is that sort of pretty faux-princess name a couple might give a daughter even now. And the Welsh are completely exempt from this principle because long ago they decided the alphabet didn't have enough vowels and they needed to make more. However, if you are not careful you are liable to have your story pegged as a fantasy (even if it is a fantasy) merely on your use of the Y. I find it to be either Welsh or amateur, and while I don't mind the one I'm not hankering to be pigeon-holed into the other, how about you?

My neck may or may not still be intact at this juncture. Like Katie, I like a good, solid fantasy and I don't like to waste my time on anything less than that. I don't think I read as much as she does, my natural taste tends more toward historical fiction, but I do have an array of fantasy in my library. So what about them? What are the names of their characters? What are the names used by authors who have "made it"?

Eltrap Meridon
Brandoch Daha
Roverandom
Puddleglum
Caspian
Curdie
Gorice
Tirian
Puck
Juss
Una

None of these make use of the over-fantasized Y, but all of them belong to fantasies. They all manage to be in their own way unique, decent, even strong. It is absolutely possible, and recommended, to find names for your characters that don't make use of the Y. Fight! Win! There are excellent names out there just waiting to be used. There is a wealth of imagination in your own brain just waiting to be tapped. Don't settle for the mediocre Y.

12 ripostes:

  1. JENNY! *YESSSSS*!!!!!!!!!! Even I, an amateur writer have been nettled by seeing "Y" names ____EVERYWHERE____! You have hit it spot-on, I think! Thanks for addressing this issue! There are certainly other vowels in the alphabet to use, and "Y" is currently over-used. I myself am not a big fan of the cheap fantasy that is written in droves and left to dry-rot after I glance at the front page and see a knight and a dragon and a magic sword and a deep dark dungeon and a princess whose name has a plethora of "y's" in it. :P I adore C.S. Lewis and Tolkein because they knew how to write fantasy--they understood the lovely, elusive relationship between just enough whimsy with just enough reality to make us believe the fantasy is real. I strongly dislike fantasy that screams "Fairytale Ahead: Bring Out Your 'I Know This Isn't Real' Eyes"
    I like to be left wondering if there is, somewhere, a door into Narnia or a place called Middle Earth. :) Thanks for the post!

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  2. I think the names in your first column look.... Welsh. Hahaha! But yes, I am rather sick of having to decipher fancy spelled names in modern fantasy. Although I personally find plain names worse, to the point where I would even read the book. I'll give an example: Bobby Pendragon from Pendragon - ghastly!! I couldn't even finish reading the inside flap! The whole time I was thinking, Bobby? BOBBY? Are you serious? What hero is named Bobby? I could handle Robert a lot better... Bobby?? *shakes head*

    I fell into the naming trap, too, though. Only, instead of 'Y's it was ending them all in 'A's. I've narrowed it down to just two characters now: Cilla and Tovah. And Tovah doesn't count because he ends with an H. It's less feminine now. :)

    Thanks for the great read!
    -Gwyn

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  3. Oh, excellent observation! I'd go even further and say that if the name has to be gone over with a magnifying glass in order to be properly pronounced, it's most likely rubbish.

    (What is it with the Welsh names when the story isn't meant to be Welsh-set? This issue probably shouldn't annoy me as much as it does; I think I've gone all awkwardly protective.)

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  4. Ha! How true. ;) I almost never use Y in my made up names, as it's quite easy to find good, nice, new names without it. Aniese, Euchen, Elasson, Tenan, Pernilla, Almira, Orgum, etc. :)

    The one exception would be Yrolg, a dragon. And I'd like to think that that's a bit different, as I've not seen too many fantasy names that start with Y.

    I am, however, entirely too partial to starting names with vowels. It can be so easy to fall into a rut, yes?

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  5. And I took the easy way out of this problem by naming my characters after things, like Ash and Sparrow. I'm such a cheat.

    Good post! I heartily agreed with Katie's post - so heartily that I didn't have anything else to add. I hadn't thought it all the way out before, but that's why I don't usually say that I like fantasy as a genre; it seems like good fantasies are so rare that it would be silly to say that I enjoy the genre as a whole. Ho hum; well, here's to writers like C.S. Lewis, who got it right.

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  6. There are oodles of ruts that can be fallen into, such as ending names with A, or starting them all with vowels, or forgetting that names can have more than one syllable to them; but it seems as though, among the young writing circles that I wash up in, the Y issue is the favourite.

    Tolkien was a stickler for languages, I'm sure you know that, Rachel. He could make names fit because he worked long and hard at developing the unique principles of people's languages. That takes talent and dedication. But I heartily agree, Y's and A's and vowels aside, the names you choose for your characters should not impede the reader's ability to feel as if he is in a real world. For heaven's sake don't let me make you paranoid. That's not the idea at all. No need to defend your names!

    Megan, you Welsh goose, you do know Rhodri is Welsh, don't you? :P

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  7. As a devoted reader and writer, I think you're absolutely correct. Ridiculous names have unfortunately become a hallmark of fantasy. They have either too many vowels or not enough, and, distressingly often, far too many apostrophes. I do not think apostrophes work the way you think they work.

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  8. Hey, now, Eustys Claryns Scrubbe is a perfectly good name, and Lewis used it, didn't he? ...but seriously, 'y' is such an insipid letter, especially when it is sprinkled like magic alphabet-dust in an attempt to create Exotic and Fantastical Names. I think "Jyny" and "Tym" are my favorites on your list of Despicables. And now I'm tormented by the knowledge that my name can't really be Yminated. I suppose I shall never fall into a fairy-tale world, unless it is with some odd handle like Anyna (the 'y' being sylent).

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  9. I am relieved to announce that, after a quick and panicked review, none of the names of my characters that I can think of off the top of my head have the letter "Y" in them. At least not of the "I" impersonation variety. All of the "Y's" I do have make the proper "ya" sound. "Y" in a name can sometimes be a nice touch, I suppose, but yes, it's overdone.

    (And I only just notices your misspelling of behind in this post's title. That made me giggle.)

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  10. Hey! hey! it's Alex! Yes, yes, don't be paranoid. Won't have that. Dashed uncomfortable. Make one late for supper. Just check all your Y's when they come in and you should be safe.

    Anna, if you wanted Ymination (which I doubt you do), there's always Annya, which looks passing dreadful but it almost a real name, and you could squeak by into Fantasy that way. Always be on the look-out for loop-holes.

    Why am I defending this?

    Not being an avid reader of fantasy myself, I haven't run across many of the names that use the apostrophe, but I have seen this peculiar phenomenon. It only works if you are going to take the time to make a proper language and construct proper grammatical rules so that the apostrophe means something. Otherwise it's kind of lame.

    What do they teach them at these schools?

    Just as an aside - way aside - writing in Middle English is a hoot. All of the letters and books related in the novel The Worm Ouroboros are spelled any which way, the same word often differing from one line to the next. It works with the styled time period in which the story is set, and it's quite a masterful touch. As you can probably guess, the Y is used very frequently. Just an aside! Carry on, Mr. Bowditch.

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  11. Unpronounceable names, indeed. Another trademark of typical, under-steeped fantasy. That and the Y, of course. And they often walk hand-in-hand.

    This made me chortle. ^.^ Thank you for it! Sticking one's neck out alone is quite a scary business, but when one has a fellow Literature Defender at one's side, Things become easier to take.

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  12. Ouch ouch ouch! The Book i'm writing right now includes one. Lywin{Liwin}. I can't change it now the spelling is just as much a part of her as her hair is. But I will never do this again. ugg! And its not even fantasy!

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