If Dying is Easy, What’s More Difficult Than Comedy?

23 Feb

The most difficult thing about building a galactic empire of your very own doesn’t lie in populating it, or organising it, nor is it in writing the history, predicting the future or understanding how it works. The real difficulty is in finding names for things; people and places that don’t make you cringe when you try to use them.

Obviously writers of fantasy have much the same problem and JRR Tolkien had a major advantage in as much as he was familiar to some degree with a wide variety of languages classical, modern and medieval. (Something more than 20, I think).

Doubtless this facility with languages was a major asset in creating his own languages which, in turn, allowed him to produce all manner of names for places and people which not only sounded plausible, but also had a certain coherence to them. As a matter of fact, he was very often able to produce a number of different names for any one thing. So a particular place might have a name in the Common Tongue, and another in Elvish, a third in Dwarvish and maybe another in one or other of the tongues of men.

This is an enviable ability. (Not to mention deeply exasperating for those of us who struggle with such things).

For my part I’m only really fluent in English. I can vaguely recall a bit of High School French, but not much and I know a few (a very few) words in German, mostly technical and esoteric terms. I also know a little Ancient Greek and Latin (who doesn’t) and I can be quite rude in Russian. I even know one or two words of Japanese. (None of this is desperately impressive, if you think about it, most of us know a fair number of words and phrases taken from different languages depending on the vagaries of education, interests, employment and hobbies).

Needless to say, this is not altogether sufficient to produce a series of plausible names as and when required.

Sometimes, when you can’t rely on your wide-ranging knowledge of foreign languages ancient and modern, you can fall back on typos, misreadings and other gifts of accident and error. But many of these will not only be gibberish, they will also read and sound like gibberish and therefore be pretty much useless.

Of course the problem was much less acute for a writer like Charles Dickens.

For one thing most of the places he was writing about were quite real and even where they weren’t they were, at least, in Britain. (More specifically England). There was the odd exception, but where Dickens needed a name for a place in Africa he could quite happily concoct a nonsense word like ‘Borrioboola-Gha’ because the name didn’t have to be plausible. It just had to sound exotic and comedic in a, sort-of, African kind of way, to people who would mostly know very little about Africa or African languages.

In any case Borrioboola-Gha doesn’t play a huge role in Bleak House, it’s a piece of throwaway humour used by Dickens to take a satirical swipe at what he called ‘telescopic philanthropy’. (If you want to know what he meant by that, read the book. You might find the length intimidating but it’s a pretty easy read. Once you get started you’ll fly through it, but watch out for the pathos, it’s Dickens’ biggest weakness).

But even where Dickens wanted a name for a character who was going to play a significant role in his story, he still had a great degree of latitude.

That’s because, while he often dealt with serious themes, he did so through humour which meant that, to a degree, realism was often an optional extra. That’s not to say that Dickens ever wrote pure fantasy, his work was always rooted in real life even if he chose to show it in a heightened, distorted, sometimes fabulous and often grotesque way. So he could have characters like Gradgrind, Lady Deadlock, Fezziwig and, of course, Bob Cratchit.

Typically, for Dickens a character’s name was an extension and reflection of their personality or situation. Hence Ebenezer Scrooge. The surname may well be derived from an obscure English verb ‘scrouge’, meaning ‘squeeze’ or ‘press’, but the reader doesn’t need to know that to get the point. With a name like Scrooge, you pretty well have to be a tight fisted, grasping sort of character. (At least until the end of the book).

Similarly, the relentlessly cheerful co narrator of Bleak House is called Esther Summerson. Once you know the name, you know something about the character as well.

Fans of the Harry Potter books will doubtless be aware that JK Rowling did much the same thing in naming many of her characters as did Mervyn Peake. (If you haven’t read the Gormenghast books, then maybe that’s something else to stick on your ‘to do’ list).

This is not really an option if you’re trying to write something with a bit less humour. (I was tempted to say ‘something a bit more serious’ but sometimes Dickens was quite serious, and doubtless fans of Harry Potter would make much the same claim about JK Rowling. I’m reluctant to offer a definitive opinion, however, because while I’ve seen the films, as and when they’ve been on TV, I haven’t read the books).

Of course writers of ‘serious’ science fiction ( and some may doubt there even is such a thing) do sometimes apply names that have some degree of significance to characters, places and races. The most obvious example being Gene Roddenberry using names like ‘Romulan’ or ‘Vulcan’.

These names are obviously drawn from existing human cultures. I’m not quite sure why Roddenberry chose the name ‘Vulcan’ for a race who tend to be Saturnine in appearance, although I suspect it was probably just because he thought it sounded right. (I’m sure someone will know, but I just watched the series, I’ve no claim to the esteemed title of ‘Trekker’). Having said that the significance of the name ‘Romulan’ for a race with a largely militaristic and authoritarian culture seems pretty obvious.

The term ‘Klingon’, while it’s given rise to a certain amount of scatalogical wordplay, particularly in the West of Scotland, is a little more obscure. But it kind of sounds right anyway and that’s all that really matters in the end. (Having said this, maybe the reason ‘Klingon’ seems to work so well has something to do with the fact that we’ve been hearing it for decades now. Familiarity, at least for made up names, tends to breed credibility, not contempt).

Of course this kind of thing can go horribly wrong.

Consider The Chronicles of Riddick, for example.

Here you have Riddick’s people the ‘Furyons’. Is that a reference to ‘the Furies’ from Greek mythology, perhaps? After all, Riddick does turn out to be the avenger of his race. Or maybe it’s supposed to suggest anger or violence. (Having said this Riddick seldom seems to be angry as such, although he’s frequently violent).

And then there’s the prison planet where it gets very, very hot in the daytime, ‘Crematoria’. Bit obvious, don’t you think?

Maybe a little more work was required here.

Although the truly abysmal example of this kind of thing comes from James Cameron’s Avatar.

I mean, ‘Unobtanium’?


It’s not even as though the term is used ironically.

What on earth was he thinking about?

Obviously there are plenty of people who really enjoyed Avatar (although, personally I found the plot predictable and the characters pretty unpleasant so I gave up part way through), but I think my point still stands. Giving a made up substance a name like ‘unobtanium’ is just liable to jar anyone out of their suspended disbelief.

So that brings me back to borrowings from what little I know of foreign languages, typos, misreadings and other happy(ish) accidents. Because I do need quite a few place names and nothing screws up your narrative flow quite like having to stop to make one up.

The only solution I’ve found is to take some time in advance of writing the story in order to make up a stock of names I can apply as and when I need them. Needless to say, some of them make me cringe when I try to use them, but when that happens, I can only hope that I have enough spare made up names in stock to fill the gap.

Maybe I should just write a comedy or something. Edmund Keane (or was it Donald Wolfit) said ‘dying is easy, comedy is hard’. (Which may well be true, I wouldn’t know, I haven’t died yet.) But if comedy is hard, making up sensible sounding names derived from languages that don’t exist, for places and people who don’t exist, is much harder.


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