I keep meaning to do this every comp, and then leave it too late and get self-conscious about self-indulgent overreading. But, look, I think naming is really important in writing. Outside of poetry, there are few places where the choice of a single word has so much potential to imply stuff, and… OK, I’m not going to justify this, I just really enjoy doing it.
Anyway. Here are a bunch of character names from the 2017 IF Comp that I found striking, but which would have been a huge boondoggle to talk about in the actual review; and what I read into them. I make no apologies.
Bird (10pm). Birds are delicate, gracile, frail. When you call someone birdlike, you tend to imply being small and fragile. Applied to a twelve-year-old boy, one pictures something like those two boys who look confusingly similar in Stranger Things. It suggests childhood as a time of acute vulnerability, emotional as well as physical; there’s some sense of the trope of childhood as inherently feminine. Bird talks about feeling imprisoned, so there’s an element of bird/cage at work here as well.
So a big contrast to Ty (10pm). Ty is a rugged all-American kind of name. Most famous bearer: Ty Cobb, golden-age baseball hero whose (disputed?) reputation as a racist thug sits real damn well that two-punch spondee of a name. Ty is the tougher, less-dorky, edgier incarnation of Tyler, a name that peaked for kids born in the 90s and consequently now sounds like the kid who skateboards into a dumpster for the likes and kneecaps himself in the process. Ty is a homophone for the more gender-neutral Tai, but you know and I know that Tai drinks chia-seed kombucha and Ty drinks RC Cola.
Ty is also (possibly) a dirty pun, because a plot point rotates around Ty having marks on his neck, probably of sexual nature, possibly from rope.
Gina (Bookmoss). Gina is not a contemporary kid’s name, to my ear – and stats suggest that, as a given name at least, this peaked in the 60s and 70s and has been in steep decline ever since – and most of the names for which it’s a nickname, like Virginia and Regina, are also not very suggestive of a kid born after 2000. Carla and Jeff, the weird librarians, are pretty good contemporaries for a Gina – these are names that were cool around the 60s. Gina gets positioned kind of as a Typical Kid of her era, constantly focused on her phone, but the name suggests that she – or, more plausibly, her parents – are a little out of step with the modern world.
Abby Fuller (Harmonia). Probably Abigail, which got popular as hell in the 90s and has barely slacked off since, but also has a long pedigree. Abby, of course, is the cosier, friendlier nickname, the version that doesn’t get taken quite as seriously – but not that much less seriously. An Abigail would fit slightly better amongst New England bluestockings than an Abby, but only slightly. And nobody would blink at an Abigail Fuller in C19th New England, right?
Lillian Horace-Ripley (Harmonia). Double-barreled names are generally a class signifier – a decidedly unreliable one, for sure, but those are both solid Anglo-Saxon surnames and in a New England context, yup. Lillian is one of the few late-Victorian-sounding names which are a) undergoing a modern resurgence but b) were actually more popular back in the day than they are now, rather than just sounding like it. But it’s not the Catherine or Elizabeth that’d fit unambiguously alongside Horace-Ripley – it’s a French name, one with a sense of fin-du-siecle decadence about it, silent cinema rather than oil portraits. Lillian is not a name for cool regal reserve – it’s a name that gets in trouble, or makes it. It’s girlish at the beginning – Lily is a twofer as a flower name and a diminutive -ie ending – but that short -un sound at the end is a lot more rolled-up-sleeves. So this is a really solid name for a smart patrician with a taste for misbehaviour.
Alice Gillman (Harmonia). Alice is of course best-associated with the Carroll books, but it’s a name considerably older than that. (There are name-lists from medieval Occitan which suggest that at certain times something like one in three women were called Alice.) It’s a very enduring Germanic name without a strong association with saints or royalty – Alices have been both, of course, but it hasn’t shifted the sense of the name. Alice can affect nobility, but it’s not ever going to feel out-of-place in the mud. Alices are often misfits or mad. Gillman is as solidly-Saxon as Horace-Ripley, yet less elegant. Etymologically it has nothing to do with fish, but it still carries a sense of goggle-eye and mouth gulping at air. Alice is a strange fish.
Deshaun Steven (Deshaun Steven’s Ship Log). That de- prefix, in modern America, is solidly within an African-American naming style that originally aimed to reclaim African heritage but ended up developing into its own thing. Deshaun, specifically, is a name of the 90s – you’d expect a Deshaun to be a feckless twentysomething now, rather than the spacefaring future. But because we don’t really have much idea what Future Names will look like, it’s a lot easier to use contemporary names in SF than it is in fantasy – just as long as they’re not incredibly trendy. (Steven is a pretty boring British-origin surname; Stephens and Stephen are somewhat more common among African-Americans than white Americans, but not to the point where they stand out.)
The main thing about the name is that it’s not cool. It doesn’t trip off the tongue with a dramatic flourish; it’s not a hero name. It’s forgettable, but it’s not a comically dull name like Arthur Dent. Arthur Dent is a name for a guy whose role is to be aggressively dull, to whine and kvetch for dullness lost; Deshaun Steven just goes with it.
Salomé Vélez (Dancing with Fear). Generally I’d avoid this – it’s hard to read the connotations of names in other languages – but Salome is too good a name to pass up. Salome is, as is well known, the daughter of Herodias who dances for her step-father Herod Antipas and, in exchange, asks for the head of John the Baptist. (She’s not named as such in the Bible, but she’s generally identified with the Salome mentioned by Josephus.) The Herodian dynasty were originally Edomites, so Salome falls within the long-standing Jewish tradition of anxiety about the corrupting sexual allure of foreign women – particularly from groups, like the Philistines and Edomites, from very closely-related cultures, whose existence threatened to blur the special separateness of the Jewish people. So it’s a name that reflects on her mulata heritage.
Orientalist artists loved this story, and appealed to it whenever they wanted an excuse for a gorgeous slutty exotic woman wearing mostly gauze and jewelry. So it’s a straightforward name for a performer who uses sexual allure to get what she wants from powerful men, and more generally for any woman whose allure threatens the social order. It’s a stage-name – not something that good Catholics would be likely to name a child. And in the story, it’s a name with a specific history – it’s specifically mentioned as being adopted from the Rita Hayworth movie, in which Salome is still an Oriental burlesque fantasy (albeit as blonde ingenue) but has her motivations painted in a considerably more favourable light.
Maya (Harbinger). Maia is a Romano-Greek name, the mother of Hermes and a figure who ends up as a mother-goddess or an earth/ goddess; it works both as nubile nymph and as green mother. It is a pagan name that fits very well into modern ideas of paganism as centred around femininity and nature. (It also, conveniently, is the name of a culture which Western culture mostly remembers for ancient jungle temples.) It’s a soft, musical name, all sonorants, but it’s also not frilly: two fairly simple syllables. It’s a name that’s been pretty damn popular since the 90s, so it feels right for a young adult – if there’s anything wrong with it, it’s that it feels slightly like an idea of the past that’s very shaped by modern aesthetics.
Briana (Insignificant Little Vermin). Brian is an tricky name for fantasy: on the one hand, it’s an ancient Gaelic hero-name, but on the other, its popularity in the modern era peaked strongly around the 1960s and 70s, so – especially if the fantasy isn’t particularly Celtic-flavoured – it tends to feel more mundane than heroic. Brianna and its spelling variants feel more emphatically modern – rare until the 1970s, very popular in the 90s and 00s, and only slightly faded since. So while it instinctively feels right for a young woman of action-adventuring age, it feels out-of-place in high fantasy.
Sheila the Amazon (The Castle of Vourtram). Sheila is an old Gaelic name, but its more recent history… well. In the US it was most popular in the 40s, 50s and 60s, so it reads as a grandmother kind of name (one of my grandmothers, in fact, was born Sheila O’Neill). In Australia it became the term for a typical or generic Irish woman by the early C19th, and for any woman by the century’s end – but with particularly a sense of an ordinary woman. If you want to go back to a sense of Gaelic style you’d be well-advised to spell it Síle.
My suspicion is that the author meant amazon in the general sense of a tall, robust, athletic woman, but in a fantasy setting it’s hard to avoid the suggestion of the mythical culture of warrior-women. Canonically, Amazons had Greek names like Hippolyta and Penthesilea – names which now read, to us, as suggesting graceful sophistication and sturdy power, plus also a touch of erudite Old Money of the kind that would have learned Latin and Greek and given their children eccentric names that let everyone know it. Sheila is pretty much the opposite of that. And Amazons are a culture from just over the horizon, akin to Atlantis; they’re exotic, while Sheila is anything but. So this is a name which reads like a joke, like Cohen the Barbarian.
Grardobeth (The Castle of Vourtram). I’m saving the best until last. In a fantasy work that’s a bizarre mish-mash of naming styles – Chuma Huppic, Coriander, Linwynne, Gwalinad, Rodney, Sheila the Amazon – Grardobeth is a standout. With most of those names I can at least hazard a guess at derivation – Linwynne and Gwalinad are plausibly Welsh, Chuma Huppic seems vaguely Mesoamerican – but, like, Princess Grardobeth. Man.
‘Grar’ is one of those growling, harsh syllables that you tend to get in the names of fake orcs and barbarians – Grashdak and Vargaz and so forth. To be fair, though, ‘Grard’ kind of looks like something that shows up if you assembled a simplified version of English phonology rules into a random generator: it’s a syllable that English could have, even though it really doesn’t. The final syllable seems like an attempt to pull things back towards familiarity with a feminine suffix – but *beth is an odd suffix. It really has only two manifestations in English naming: as part of Elizabeth, and as part of names derived from double names, like Lilibeth and Maribeth from Lily-Beth and Mary-Beth. So it really just highlights the oddness of Grardo, rather than softening it.
(Another thing about fantasy naming: it’s a good idea if your fantasy naming suggests its own stressed syllables. I’m hearing it as GRARD-o-beth, but what if it’s grar-DO-beth?)
I didn’t ever get far enough in the game to encounter Grardobeth, and I’m honestly kind of glad. Who could possibly live up to a name like that?