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February 4, 2012 / Wythe

Meta: what you can do with a (fantasy/sci-fi) name

I was thinking over Carcosa‘s “jale,” which iOS always wants to autocorrect into “Jake.”

Jale is a new color, one unimaginable but somehow understandable:

“Just as blue is delicate and mysterious, yellow clear and unsubtle, and red sanguine and passionate, so he felt ulfire to be wild and painful [and] jale [to be] dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous.”

Beyond the awesomeness of the concept (and its myriad uses in spec. realist games), I like how jale sounds—which at first read may sound like a left-handed compliment, the way a naive museum-goer says he like the “colors” in some painting—betraying the fact he has nothing else to say (about the painting) [probably because the painting isn’t very engaging in the first place].

I bring this up because “good “sounding-ness” is such a huge part of successful speculative fiction, whether this quality takes an archetypal, cartoonish, Joseph Campbell/George Lucas “brightness” (Sol Badguy is a badguy; Wily Coyote is wily; Darth Vader is the Dark Father) or a hard sci-fi, Star Trek/Klingon, invented language, Cormac McCarthy/Cloud Atlas “darkness” (the Kid has no name; Klingon and Elvish have complex, rigorous, and “believable” rules that generate words and name which always sound “right”).

I’m a fan of the latter, with a few bright points thrown in as needed/wanted to shift the mood of a game up from lie fantasy to epic, or move sideways from serious “dungeon crawl” to winkingly unselfserious Vancian romp through the fungal jungle.

The best/”darkest” names that I can think of (in my musical sense—tonal along the silly/serious axis only, so neither “happy” or “good” nor “sad” or “bad”) are xkcd and Cthulhu.

Bright names punch archetypal buttons. Dark names sound like they “should be real” (“Carcosa,” “Gondor”). xkcd and Cthulhu defy your brain to even hold them in your head as sounds, as names. (At least at first. You quickly assign a “correct” pronunciation—KUH-THOOL-HU?—even if you later change it, based on some expert’s translation of the same symbols.)

These anti-names were designed to be unpronounceable—and thus, to whatever small degree, unthinkable—on purpose…

Here are just three random names I’ll use in my 100MY games coming up—purely because they “sound good”—along with thoughts on their creation and my instincts re their uses:

  • Zhale – Take “hale” and add a Z, Y, Q, Hth, Kth, Bz, or other “alien” (to English-speakers) consonantal array. Voila! A villain. Or “Zhalay,” a place. A secret. The tarot of fantastic names refuses to open up to a Z. Compare the bright Fenhale (a nice hobbit/scincid from the swamp?); the dark Zhalayat (a poem written in Zhalay, duh); and the unutterable Zhzhangh (the primal pissing-into-the-desert-at-night Old One worshipped by the corrupt heresiarchy of Zhalay). Each name has a different “mouth-feel” (lulz), and each looks different. All from “hale” + Z.
  • Thalnée – Use accents uncommon in English. How the hell do you use them, for real? Who cares!? You’re not teaching linguistics now, just artfully setting a mood. Tell your PCs anything, or omit the accent entirely when dealing with them: The accent is for you, perhaps, for your world. (Thalnée, of course, is the famous courtier of Zhalay who killed Empress Hévéllana, that foreign bitch! Thalnée’s portrait and delicately ripped bodice are on display in the Museum of the Garden of Ninety Panthers in downtown Zhalay.)
  • Faulauru – Use repetition more than you generally do in English. (You’ll remember your mother’s friend “Fau,” the one who turned out to be a spy for the Empress? Yeah, fuck that surprise villain!) You can also always play against form. Instead of naming a villain something obvious like Throkzar or Andrew Jackson, name her something pleasant like Aranalla—and make Aranalla a big, pleasant, manly dude. (I.e., please don’t fall into the trap of thinking every ends-in-a-vowel name is feminine!)

These are all processes of alienation. The Clever Reader will have by now perceived that all my worldbuilding techniques rely on artful blends of science and alienation (and science is alienating, to most).


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