J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

The bad name test.

This an idea that a friend of mine (who also blogs here, by the way… you can find her at http://addisoncrow.wordpress.com/) and I have bandied about when we talk books, or fiction in general, really.

The premise is pretty simple… no matter how awesome the character when you meet them, they have to abide by one simple rule: if you want them taken seriously, you cannot give them a bad name. If it’s a comic relief character, that’s fine anytime. If it’s a light hearted story, then that’s fine too (Fat Charlie from Neil Gaiman’s Anasi Boys comes to mind). But if you have a heavy, dramatic story, your main characters better not have a name with an innuendo in it, or anything else that can be skewed with simple wordplay.

 

What do I mean by that, exactly? How do you measure what a bad name is? I’ll explain.

 

When I was in high school, I started playing Dungeons and Dragons with my group of friends. I already had the reputation of being the ubermensch geek among us. I read all the obscure fantasy novels, I played all the most obscure video games… I had a wealth of knowledge they didn’t have. So when we rolled our characters, I decided to flex my hipster muscles early. My character was an elven warrior. I wanted him to be the most awesome, show stealing character in our group. But I had to make his name memorable.

So I referred to a game I’d played years ago on the original Nintendo, a little game known as Final Fantasy. In that game, one of the toughest bosses early on in the game was Astos, a dark elf who’d cast a curse on a local town. Of course, it was up to your party to save the day and defeat him. But at the time, I thought he was an awesome character, as well. So I figured in a small homage, I’d name my D&D character Astos.

When I presented my character, my buddies cracked up. I was confused, at first.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Your character… is named ASS-TOSS!?” one of them replied. I quickly tried to save face and explain that no, that’s not how the name was pronounced at all, even though that was BS since I’d never heard anyone actually pronounce it before. Eventually I’d just change his name to “Atoss” instead, but the damage was done. For the duration of that campaign, he was Ass-Toss. And a heavy lesson was learned.

 

But has everyone learned this too? Of course not. As a matter of fact, there’s quite a few published authors that have terrible choice in names. And their characters, while popular, suffer some measure of ridicule that could’ve been avoided with just some simple letter placements.

 

Katniss and Peeta – The Hunger Games

I hate to pick on The Hunger Games again so soon, but this one is too notorious to ignore. I understand what Suzanne Collins was trying to do. Throughout the entire book, and a large cast of characters, no one has a normal, earthy name. There are no Steves, or Katies, Angelas, or Roberts. At least part of her goal with this was of course to give her setting more of a unique identity by making it feel like a completely different world, but familiar at the same time.

In Peeta’s case, it’s ambitious. Very rarely do you come across names for men that end with an A. That’s typically reserved for the ladies*. So I respect that part of it. It’s unfortunate, then, that his name is suspiciously close to “pita”, like the kind of bread. When you realize that he’s a baker’s son, it becomes apparent where the inspiration came from. Maybe she knew full well what she was doing when she named him that. Still, I think it’d work much better as a nickname than as what he’s legally called. What’s next, a girl named Ciabatta?

*Quick, try and come up with five names for girls that DON’T end with A. It’s harder than you’d think.

As for Katniss? I like that name, actually. I suspect I’ll continue liking it until about a decade from now, when there will be tons of little girls named that by their mothers who are fans of the books. It has everything you’d want out of a name, really… it’s familiar, but unusual. Alien, but feminine.

So why is it here with Peeta? Well, as it often is with stories that have a romantic slant, the names of the two involved in a relationship become intertwined (insert innuendo here) and inseparable. It’s safe to say that, among fans and even people with only cursory knowledge of The Hunger Games, the names Katniss and Peeta go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Okay. So, going on that, place the two names together, like people like to do with super popular celebrity couples. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez used to be known as Bennifer. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are known as Brangelina.

Do the same thing with Peeta and Katniss. I’ll wait.

Peeta + Katniss = Peeniss.

Try not to add saxophone music while you do.

Yes. Combined, their name is Penis. A tragic byproduct, yes, but it is what it is. Much like me and my Ass-toss D&D character. So it’s a bad name combination. Therefore it belongs here.

Moving on.

 

Fragarach – The Iron Druid Chronicles

Kevin Hearne’s series about a two thousand year old druid running an occult shop in Tempe Arizona is pretty simple urban fantasy fare – it’s not as good as  The Dresden Files or The Nightside novels – that aims squarely to entertain you. I have a few issues with this series, chief among them how so few of the concepts the author throws out really seem earned. If you throw out the names of Norse and Celtic gods casually like they aren’t a big deal, then we’re not going to think it’s a big deal either. And Atticus… simply doesn’t feel all that old, for how often he mentions it. But those are smaller design quibbles. We’re here to talk about bad name choices.

In the first book, a major plot point is how so many godly beings want nothing more than to get their hands on a magic sword Atticus possesses. It’s constantly hyped in terms of how powerful it is, how whomever possesses it can really change the balance of power on the supernatural landscape… it’s a serious Macguffin, folks. It even has a cool title – “The Answerer”.

How unfortunate, then, that its fancy fantasy and folklore derived name is Fragarach. I don’t know about you, but say that name out loud and this is what you get:

I’m still waiting on some character to come in and ask Atticus if it was forged by Jim Henson. And much like “Ass-Toss”, once it has been spoken, it’s hard to put aside out of your head. It’s there.

The truly tragic part is that yes, Fragarach is an actual name of a sword in Irish Mythology. Hearne didn’t just make it up, he was showing off the research he put into his writing. Just like I put my research into my D&D character. It doesn’t matter how right or justified you are to use it. If your audience can spell something else out of it that cannot ever be taken seriously, it’s probably smarter to avoid it.

How aware is the author of this? I’m not so sure he did when he first got published, but he sure is now. In his novella “The Grimoire of the Lamb”, Atticus mentions it in passing.

“It was Fragarach – absolutely no relation to Fraggle Rock – an ancient fae sword I had come by about as honestly as I’d come by the Grimoire of the Lamb”.

He’s too far into the series to do anything about it now, of course. But I can’t help but wonder what he’d do if he knew then what he’s aware of now.

 

I have no doubt I’ll revisit this idea in the future, but that’s enough for now. To anyone coming up with names, just keep this in mind. Before you settle on one, whether it’s for a D&D character, a character in your manuscript, or even for your unborn child, speak it out loud. Mention it to someone else, and see if they can twist it, or if it reminds them of something silly.

Try and avoid having your own personal Ass-toss moment. Take it from me.

 

 

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2 comments on “The bad name test.

  1. addisoncrow
    June 14, 2013

    I see the “silly name check” has become the “bad name test”… I’ll see you in court, buddy. This is my Apple design moment 😛

    Peeta is an unfortunate one because it’s a variant spelling of Peter from Scandinavia/Holland. Apart from the the name combining debacle, is it really any worse than Petyr “deadpan moustache” Baelish?

    I don’t mind weird names so much as ones with no indication of pronunciation. Variant spellings of existing names are useful for that. If there’s a fantasy book (and fantasy is usually the worst for it) that in the blurb has a character called Mtor’njiul’akthmgula (probably female :P) that’s too many apostrophes for me, I don’t care what phonemes your fantasy language is based on.

    At least GRRM gives us character names we can easily yell at the page/TV in sorrow when they inevitably kick the bucket. Maybe we should use that as a basis for character naming in future?

  2. addisoncrow
    June 14, 2013

    Oh: Beth, Hannah, Ruby, Jane, …Claire

    Although I suppose being forced to call up to twenty five names an hour gives me an advantage 😛

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