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The Best and the Worst Names in Fantasy Novels

Let’s face it, fantasy fans are among the hardiest readers there are. We can suspend our disbelief long enough to believe that a fifty ton dragon can fly, that an ordinary child at an ordinary wizard school can save the world, and that the female lead has any interest in our tragically unattractive male lead, but that’s not all. Fantasy authors, knowing their readers to be the toughest, try ever harder to weed out the weak from their audiences. There are a number of weapons in the capable fantasy author’s arsenal, not least of which the illegible map, bewildering politics, and inanimate objects with destinies.

In fantasy novels, as in confusing magic systems, the true name of a thing or a person is a powerful thing to wield. In the correct hands, a name might tell you many things about a character. Inexpertly wielded, character names become confusing, aimless things, filled to the brim with clashing consonants, hyphens, and apostrophes.

This reading list showcases some of the most fiendishly clever fantasy writers the genre has ever seen, as well as the horrors that they created to throw all but the most determined readers off their scent.

Gardens Of The Moon

Steven Erickson might be generally well regarded for his ability to carve whole continents and histories from nothing to fill the pages of his Malazan series, but when it comes to names he is a particularly rare talent. While word-names often form the baseline for fantasy names, Erickson takes this to the next level. Gardens of the Moon introduces readers to characters like “Whiskeyjack,” “Tattersail,” “Sorry,” and “Dujek Onearm” (who only has one arm), which Erickson follows up with heavy metal band names, like “Anomander Rake” (less rakish than his name implies) and “Caladan Brood” (not constantly brooding).

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The Black Jewels Trilogy

Anne Bishop’s fantasy romance series, The Black Jewels Trilogy, boasts naming so outlandish it borders on the surreal. The series begins with Daughter of the Blood and is set in the realm of Terreille, which is ruled by a malevolent witch. We won’t comment too broadly on the story or setting, because to so would only distract from the majesty of its names. Some of its characters are merely off-putting, like “Dorothea” or “Jared Blaed Grayhaven” while others are spectacular feats of dreadful naming. The lowlights include names like “Lucivar Yaslana,” “Surreal SaDiablo,” and “Saetan SaDiablo” (High Lord of Hell).

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The Chronicles of Narnia

Picking C. S. Lewis almost feels like cheating, but his work remains the home of some of the best and most memorable names in fantasy. After all, there are many lifelong fantasy fans who were first introduced to the genre by the faun, Mr. Tumnus. There, as with characters like Aslan, Lewis excels in the creation of memorable names that are memorable without being too silly.

Lewis also boasts one of the finest examples of an honestly terrible name that still manages to sound real, in the case of "Eustace Clarence Scrubb." Even the narrator can’t resist making a jab in this instance, saying,

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

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The Name of the Wind

Patrick Rothfuss might be known for his poetic touch when it comes to description, but when it comes to names he’s a cut above. While names like “Chronicler” are fun for the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin value, there are few more on the nose names than “Kvothe” (who later informs us that his name is actually pronounced “quothe”) for the man setting down his own story. It’s a bold decision, and one that echoes over the course of the book, constantly reminding the reader that they are reading a story being told by someone who seems to have made it through the whole thing in one piece, so it can’t possibly go too badly.

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The Crystal Shard

While licensed fiction runs the risk of chaining a writer’s creative instincts, there are authors who flourish in its more rigid structure. R. A. Salvatore might be one of the most flexible writers working in the field of onomastic gymnastics. The Crystal Shard sees readers introduced to characters like the dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden, the barbarian Wulfgar, and the dwarf Bruenor Battlehammer. Where Salvatore really excels is in his ability to put together combinations of letters that other writers would never dare. Later in the series, this leaves us with names like “Zaknafein” “Jarlaxle” and “Thibbledorf Pwent.”

We're still struggling with “Guenhwyvar.”

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Dragonflight

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series is often (rightly) considered science fiction rather than fantasy, but it’s got dragons and bonkers names enough for us to include it here, at least as an honorable mention. This is another of those strange dichotomies where the names are split evenly between excellent and dire. Place names, like “Pern” and “Benden Weyr”, are all relatively straightforward, but character names are addled with the kind of rogue apostrophes that characterise the genre’s worst offenders.

While there is an in-universe explanation, there’s just no changing the fact that you’re going to spend most of the book looking at names like “F’lar,” “F’nor,” and “R’Gul.”

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The Lord of the Rings

There are few fantasy lists complete without a nod to Tolkien, and in any list of the all-time-great fantasy namers he has pride of place. Tolkien is notable not only for the high quality of his names, but for the sheer volume. For Tolkien, every good name was an opportunity to think of at least four more good names. When introducing a character, it is important to list not only their name, but also the names of their most recent ancestors. That’s not just high quality, it's great value.

Tolkien also gave us one of the greatest names ever to be held by a malevolent force. Where others need to dress their evil up in dreadful names, Tolkien was content to let their vile deeds speak for themselves, meaning he could take a more subtle approach. In spite of the familiarity of the name, what single name could ever conjure as much enmity as, “Sackville-Baggins.”

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The Paladin

No list of incredible fantasy onomasts could possibly complete without C. J. Cherryh. Cherryh is another example of an author whose talent for names shows that the line between genius and madness is thin and wavering. In the case of The Paladin, we are introduced to Saukendar and Taiza. In Cherryh’s other works, characters have been less fortunate, left with maimed and confusing names, like Pride of Chanur’s “Akkhtimakt” or Voyager in the Night’s “<>.”

If <> weren’t confusing enough, the opening sentence of the book is, 

“Trishanamamndu-kepta was <>’s name, of shape subject to change and configurations of consciousness somewhat mutable.”

Perhaps most impressive of all, C. J. Cherryh’s talent for the naming of things seeped out of her books and into her real life. Legend has it that an editor once opined that her name, “C. J. Cherry,” read too much like that of a romance writer. Cherryh is said to have appended the final “h” to create a pen name that would avoid the issue.

If that weren’t enough, an asteroid has since been named in her honour, “77185 Cherryh.”

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Professor George Edward Challenger first made a name for himself as a travelling adventurer and investigator. Unfortunately, he has never succeeded in solving the greatest mystery of all... and ... Show More