Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Catch-22 of Fantasy Names and Language

So you've decided to create a secondary world for your story. You don't want it to be an alternate version of earth but with magic, you want it to be unique and other and different, a true secondary world. This will be so cool and original.

You quickly become aware that it's very, very difficult to actually imagine things that are truly "other". It begins to dawn on you that is why most aliens and fantasy races are just humans but with exaggerated and stereotyped characteristics. And maybe it's also why people say to write what you know. Trying to imagine something that has no foundation in your mind is quite possibly impossible.
And then there are the technical problems. You have to use words to describe all the strange and alien things you are trying to relate to your audience. The words you have to use are, for the most part, confined to your native language. Unless you're a linguist or someone with a natural knack for making new words, any words and names you come up with yourself are likely to come across to the reader as a random assembly of syllables that are rarely ever memorable. (I can't count the number of times I have felt that way about the words and names used by fantasy authors I have read.) And yet, thanks to Tolkien, fantasy-esque names and words are expected. If you name your epic fantasy hero Bob or Dave or even Steve people just won't take him seriously. (Thanks, Tolkien.)

Aha! You think. I'll borrow names and words from another language that will be unfamiliar to my readers! And thus you join in a tradition as old as the genre. You chuckle at your own cleverness as you take words from an internet vocabulary list for [random language] and incorporate them into your world. You name your characters after obscure figures from various mythologies and smile as you wonder if any of your readers will see the way your choices indicate clues about the characters and their story.

But wait. You suddenly remember something... The internet both connects the entire world and puts all of the world's information at our fingertips. Where, once upon a time, fantasy writers could count on their readers to not be overly familiar with anything that isn't commonly taught in public schools in their own country (and maybe a few more that speak the same language, if they're lucky) we no longer have that luxury. What our readers don't know, they can look up in 5 seconds with google. And with the digital revolution slowly but surely spreading across the globe more people from more countries are likely to be reading your work. How will readers in Japan feel when your characters greet each other in Japanese as if it was an alien language from an alien world? How will readers in Finland feel when they read your work and realize that you've used the Finnish word for "breakfast" as the main character's name because you thought it sounded cool? How will readers react when they know how you've used an element from Mayan mythology in a way that makes no sense whatsoever?
And that brings us back to square one. Using real world mythology, terminology and language makes a lot of sense when your fantasy takes place on some version of our Earth. It starts to make less sense when you're using it to fill in a secondary world and yet anything that you come up with purely on your own isn't likely to resonate with readers as much as material based on real cultures will. Is it a catch 22? Is it a fine line that can be walked delicately and effectively with enough skill? If so, how do you walk it?

Let me give a few real world examples of how I've seen these problems come up in fiction.

1. A new fantasy writer I am acquainted with that published her first book recently with a small press apparently made the decision to have an alien race in her secondary world speak Japanese. Not something she came up with that's based on Japanese. Not Japanese altered a bit to look and feel different. Just straight up Japanese. When two characters greeted each other with "Konnichiwa" it dragged me kicking and screaming right out of the world. They continued to use very common, modern Japanese phrases and honorifics throughout the scene and it just made the whole thing ring false to me. I haven't been able to return to the book yet.

2. I've come across many anime that use seemingly random English words for character names. Notable examples are "Milk" in Legend of the Legendary Heroes and "Jacuzzi" in Baccano! It's another frequent (though not always) immersion breaker for me, particularly if I'm watching in English and wondering to myself how the voice actors are keeping themselves from laughing.

3. Another anime set in 18th century France used the Psalms of the Christian Bible as if they were obscure, powerful spells known only to a few with the power to turn people into zombies among other things. This was such a bizarre way to imagine the Pslams that I found it extremely hard to believe in the narrative and eventually gave up on the show.

4. The Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy of fantasy novels by Tad Williams had their worldbuilding heavily dependent on real world counterparts. I could list each of the countries and peoples in that world and point out their counterpart in ours. Furthermore, the main religion of the world was an obvious copy of Christianity, in particular Catholicism. The parallels were so clear and so pervasive and felt so superficial that I had a hard time believing in that world as a real secondary world, it felt more like a pale imitation of our own.

So, what is your take on these issues? Is it something we should avoid? Is it something we can avoid? Have you had similar experiences with fiction you've read or watched or am I just too sensitive to such things? Are there any answers or does each writer have to find the answer that is right for themselves?


  1. Wow, those are some outlandish examples. I'd feel the same as you - unable to take those works seriously.
    And of course, Tolkien's spoiled it all for me :-) because if I ever try to write a proper fantasy series I'll want to be just as subcreative and detailed and original as he was. It'll take me months to develop a language. And then I'd need maps... He sets the bar very very high :-)

    1. Yeah, it's all Tolkien's fault. Curse him for being so good I can settle for anything less. ;)


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