Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Character Names in Heroic Fantasy

For those of you who have some familiarity with Heroic Fantasy (Sword & Sorcery and Sword & Planet), have you ever noticed how many heroes have names with either 4 or 5 letters. Robert E. Howard, who is pretty much considered the founder of Sword & Sorcery, didn't really do this. His main 5 letter hero was Conan, and his 4 letter hero was Kull. He also used characters with 6 letter names, like Cormac and Vulmea, and some with even longer names, like El Borak, Turlogh, Hunwulf, Solomon, Wulfhere, Athelstane. It's pretty interesting, though, to see how many of the writers influenced by Howard used 4 or 5 letters in their hero's name, almost as if Conan and Kull became the archetypal names for Heroic Fantasy. Below is a partial
list of what I've found, focusing on the names by which the characters are usually referred to in the books. Names of characters are on the left, writers on the right.

4 Letters:
MILO morai-------------Robert Adams
BASS foster------------" "
Bili the axe-----------" "
DRAY prescot-----------Alan Burt Akers
RYRE-------------------Ramsey Campbell
NILS-------------------John Dalmas
ALAN morgan------------Gardner F. Fox
BRAK-------------------John Jakes
ELAK-------------------Henry Kuttner
TARK-------------------Colum MacConnell
Michael KANE-----------Michael Moorcock
TARL cabot-------------John Norman
OTTO (DOG) ------------" "
ODAN-------------------Manning Norvil
VIKA-------------------C. E. Owston
WULF-------------------Quinn Reade
GATH of baal-----------James Silke
ORON-------------------David C. Smith
FOST-------------------Vardeman/Milan
KANE-------------------Karl Edward Wagner


5 letters:
KADJI-------------------Lin Carter
VANYE-------------------C. J. Cherryh
GALAD sarian------------Adrian Cole
HADON-------------------Phillip Jose Farmer
KYRIK-------------------Gardner F. Fox
KAVIN-------------------David Mason
baron GALLT-------------Richard Meade
ELRIK-------------------Michael Moorcock
CORUM-------------------" "
COUNT BRASS-------------" "
John DAKER--------------" "
URLIK skarsol-----------" "
JASON marshall----------John Norman
DRACO falcon------------Mark Ramsay
IMARO-------------------Charles R. Saunders
AKRAM-------------------David C. Smith


Both 4 and 5 letter names
ADAM THANE--------------Michael Resnick
ERIC JOHN STARK---------Leigh Brackett

EXCEPTIONS:
Dorian Hawkmoon---------Michael Moorcock
Thongor of Lemuria------Lin Carter
Kothar------------------Gardner F. Fox
Kyllan------------------Andre Norton
Tempus------------------Janet Morris
Kickaha-----------------Phillip Jose Farmer
Fafhrd------------------Fritz Leiber
Prince Corwin-----------Roger Zelazny

MY HEROIC FANTASY CHARACTERS
4 letters--------------5 letters
Thal-------------------Rhing
Jyss-------------------Wahrn
Jaal-------------------Ruenn
Jask-------------------Heril

17 comments:

Sheila said...

Corwin is awesome!!!!!!! I love Roger Zelazny's books!!! I ended up getting The Great Book of Amber so I could have all ten Amber novels. I never noticed the four and five letter name pattern before but now that you mention it... it's so true. Thanks for giving me a little chuckle today!

Shauna Roberts said...

You listed only male heroes (I think), and those short names to me sound decisive, no-nonsense, and tough. I noticed that many of them had harsh or strong consonants in them--K, C, T, G--which intensified this effect.

One thing that annoys me in modern action shows is that the heroines either have male names or or go by a male nickname ("Jack" for "Jacqueline," for example). I suspect the writers are trying to make their heroines seem stronger with short, harsh names, just as your example authors did.

Frightlever said...

Salvatore got me back into reading fantasy, after a ten year, or so, lull. I loved his Drizzt stories but some of the names? Oy! The cat figurine? Yeah, he was "the cat figurine" because his real name would take a paragraph. Oh, and it was magical.

I played EQ and WOW for a while and would regularly come across people with names that had been spat out by the HP Lovecraft necroNAMEicon. All fine for S&Giggles until I had to TELL them anything, when invariably I'd call on Jak or Alis or Lynee or Gaary or just about anybody with a name I could remember and spell.

BTW, I'm offically fed up waiting for Fictionwise to get the other two Talera books so I'm getting them off Amazon. It was always going to happen but I had hoped to have a choice.

Frightlever said...

That last bit sounded peeved but I'm pretty mellow really. Like most of my Amazon purchases I made them while drunk so it's not like I'm hurtin'.

BTW you missed Frodo and Bilbo in your 5 letter round-up.

And Almuric is up on Manybooks.net (and not before time) for a free non-4 or 5 letter RE Howard character.

Sidney said...

It's not really swords and sorcery, but James Bond is a nice tight name. I've heard Clive Cussler wanted to kind of mimic that and came up with Dirk Pitt for his thrillers. I always kind of like longer first names and shorter last names, kind of like Napoleon Solo, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Don't know why I'm on a spy kick in this comment, but there it is.

Frightlever said...

"Harry Palmer" was the best British secret service agent. I just got, but haven't read Charles Stross's Atrocity Archives, which is a Lovecraft/spy pastiche.

Oh and I just remembered that Cabot became Bosk. I won a quiz with that in the 80s. Got me a ten quid book token. I didn't let it change my life.

Church Lady said...

I haven't been here for a few days. Just popped in to say hi to you and Lana.
I know nothing (make that, less than zero) about this genre. I haven't even read Potter yet. Anything that smacks of fantasy scares me away. I'll get over it...But reading your posts helps. It's making this world more familiar and comfortable.

Lana Gramlich said...

Perhaps it makes it easier on the readers to keep these unfamiliar names to no more than a few letters. Easier to remember "Kull" than "Vestaryn," after all (that was my hamster's name years ago, btw. Not an actual S&P character.)

Charles Gramlich said...

Sheila, I still have some of the later Amber novels to go. I read the first five and have most of the others but haven't read them.

Shauna, yes, these are all males. Some female sword and socery heroes I've read of have named like Red Sonja, Raven, Jirel, and Silverglass. They seem somewhat more variable, though mostly still five letters

Frightlever, I've still got some Salvatore to read. Sorry about the ebook issue. It's more Wildside than Fictionwise. I think the cheif guy there needs some help with handling issues such as this. They are easy to get from Amazon in print form, though. I hope you enjoy.

Frightlever 2, Yep, I didn't even think of Frodo and Bilbo, although they're certainly heroes. Stridor with 6 letters would be the more typical heroic fantasy hero from LOTR, I think. Almuric is actually the planet, though. The hero in that book I did forget to list. He's Esau Cairn, 4 and 5.

Was Harry Palmer an actual character? LoL. Yeah, "Bosk." I forgot about that. That was about the last of the good Gor novels I though.

Sidney, yeah, I started thinking that I bet the same 4 and 5 letter thing works for heroes in other types of genres too. Mabye I'll have to investigate that.

Church lady, hello back to you from Lana and I. Fantasy doesn't bite. Come on in, the water's fine.

Lana, good point. I bet that's a major reason for the use of short catchy names. A lot of normal human names are that way as well, at least in English. Paul, Peter, David, Bill, James, Lana, Terry, Kelly, etc.

SzélsőFa said...

In Hungarian, most names are way longer than 4-5 letters. For Hungarian readers, a short-named character reflects to the character's nationality as well. It is associated from coming from the Anglo-Saxon world.

Since we are accustomed to learn, recite and correctly spell looooong names, short names are not enough.

But I'm pretty sure it's just my opinion.

Julie said...

....short names suggest powerful, gutteral OE roots?

I've never read Harry Potter either; didn't ring any bells with me at all, though know Tolkein inside out....

Lisa said...

I love the thought process behind naming characters. Charles, any significance to all of those "J" people in your books?

Travis said...

I tend to follow this kind of thinking when I'm naming non-human characters such as Dwarves or Elves. Dwarves get the shorter, hard sounding names while Elves getting the longer, more ethereal sounding ones.

I agree with Lana...I find that when I'm reading, I enjoy the stories a little more when I can actually pronounce the names. Even when reading silently, I hate to stumble over a name that is too long or too difficult to understand.

Steve Malley said...

Neat post! :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Szelsofa, I figured it might be different in different cultures. I can see how the short, pithy names seem very Anglo-Saxon. Cool insight. Sometime you'll have to give me some heroic names from Hungarian.

Julie, definetely. I haven't read the Potter books yet, although I have the first three and fully intend to begin soon.

Steve Malley, thankee.

Travis, I always try to pick names that can be pronounced. I prefer it that way too. I've noticed a kind of tradition in fantasy where Elven names are longer and Dwarven names are shorter and more gutteral. Interesting how such a tradition could develop, although it seems just "right" to me.

Lisa, that's a good question, about the "J" names. If there is significance, I'm not aware of it. I suspect it's just that I like the sound. Still, maybe I should claim some symbolism eh?

Bernita said...

As Shauna say, the assonance/dissonance of names affects our perception of them and can add a character layer.
Also their association with other words: "Kull" - which simultaneously resonates as "kill" and "skull."

eric1313 said...

Tanis Half-Elven was a five letter lead character from Margret Weiss and Tracy Hickman's novels, as was Sturm. Both were good, conflicted heroes, as well. Harry of Potter fame would be another... Frodo, of course...

It's the villains who often have the longer names. Raistlin Majere was a wizard hero turned arch villain in Weiss and Hickman's work. He tried to challenge the gods and would have succeeded in destroying them had he not given up upon learning that he'd rule over a dead world, one destroyed by his own magic. Voldemort, Mordred, Sauron and Saurumon...

I had a DnD barbarian named Modr (Moh-draw--I always claimed that that was the only word he knew how to spell, and he dares people to tell him it's wrong), was proud of that name. And a wizard/priestess named Xosha. I credit fantasy novels and gaming with sparking a lot of creative ideas. I love what they've done for me in that regard. Nice to know I was intuitively on the right track.