Neolithic Names

tfk-c

Character names are a thorny issue for writers of fiction. If a name doesn’t remind you of your old Uncle Henry, it probably conjures up an image of a famous actor or politican. Perhaps a notorious serial killer. Give your hero a long name and you’ll be sick of writing it out by the time you hit chapter three. Short nicknames can sound too cute and contrived.

The above applies well enough to books set in the present day or the recent past. But what about fantasy and science fiction? Or – like my new novel Talus and the Frozen King – stories set in the dim and distant past? How do you come up with names for characters who lived 6,000 years ago?

The glib answer is: “You make them up.” Fair enough, but even made-up names come with baggage attached. Words remind you of other words – it’s in their nature. Everything echoes.

My solution to this problem began with the knowledge that my story is set in Neolithic Scotland. I came up with a list of English words I liked (and which seemed appropriate to the story) and translated it into Gaelic. I then indulged myself in a little free thinking and put the Gaelic words through a mangle. The result was a set of character names that could conceivably have existed in a primitive version of the Gaelic language. Well, in my mind at least.

Do they work? Well, I like them. But one man’s meat is another man’s poison. A name that hits the right notes with me might very well remind your of your old Uncle Henry or a famous actor or … well, you get the picture.

Here’s the thinking behind a few of the names in Talus and the Frozen King:

tns

Comments

  1. Steven M. Long says:

    The names in Talus and the Frozen King worked very well for me – I assumed they were made up (who knows what language was being spoken that they might have come from?). One thing I appreciated as a reader was that they all rolled off the mental tongue easily: Talus, Bran – even slightly more complex names like Alayin or Cabarrath – all of them are easy to sound out, and easy to remember and differentiate. This is weighed against times when, as a reader, I end up thinking of a character as “Th*****g” or the like, because I never really get to sounding out the name.

    The only name that gave me a moment of pause was Lethriel, because it sounded elvish, but of course by that I mean Sindarin/Tolkien – but what I’m really noticing are the Celtic roots.

    • I’ve always had issues with names that don’t roll off the tongue, so I’m delighted to hear you say that, Steven. If there’s one thing that bugs me it’s fantasy novels where the made-up names are impossible to remember – if you can even pronounce them in the first place.
      You’re not the first person to get a Tolkien vibe off Lethriel. I was conscious of it when I wrote it – and considered changing it for that very reason. But it’s a classic Celtic sound – as you point out – and therefore valid in this particular world.
      Thank you for the review, by the way 🙂

      • No problem – I enjoyed the book a good deal! Another frustration is when the names are not only impossible to remember, but similar, i.e. Theyioxylos and his brother, Theirxylis. In the end, the mind jumps to a differentiating factor and they become “os” and “is” – surely not what the author intended!

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