Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Space words of doom!

Is naming in gaming and wider fiction dull?

In the discussion under the recent post on originality in miniature design Lexington brought the subject up, and made me realise again that it's almost as if new terms are being created from a limited pool of words. These might be terms which sound right for the setting, or cool, but in some cases they are just new combinations of familiar words.

To get relatively technical for a moment, and to be fair, the names created in this way might be understood as renderings from that strange world or distant future into a form we can understand. Even so, it does seem unlikely that naming conventions would be the same as ours or even similar to them, meaning the rendering would then anyway have to be understood as far from the supposed original.

There's also the issue of sales of course. A simple catchy name - realistic and fresh or not - may be needed to identify what is probably a product, or part of a product, to sell it.

At any rate, I think it could be instructive for the creative - i.e. all of us - to see how this might be happening, to better understand the process if we choose to apply a version of it in our own work, or to help avoid it completely.

Here then is a partial list of sci-fi and fantasy morphemes I've collected over the past few days that seem heavily represented across a range of games and fiction.

angel; bane; battle; beast; black; blade; blast; blood; bone; born; cannon; clan; claw; command; crusade; d[a]emon; dark; death; deep; delve; devil; dire; doom; dragon; dread; drive; dungeon; fang; fate; fear; fey; fire; fist; flame; flesh; force; ghost; gold; grey; hammer; hawk; heart; hell; helm; hunter; iron; knight; legend; lightning; lion; lord; mage; master; nemesis; people; power; priest; quest; raven; red; rider; rune; sand; shadow; silver; sorcery; soul; space; spirit; star; steel; stone; storm; sword, thirst; thunder; tomb; war; warp; warrior; wing; witch; wolf; worm; wyrd; wyrm

Look familiar? Are they getting tedious yet? I did feel a little ennui putting this together.

Many others not included here could, as with 'cannon' and 'priest', just be standard weapon types or professions, and be used at the very least in the naming of specific versions of these things. There are also the various common bases for fictional technology, such as electricity, magnetism and plasma, which are widely corrupted into affixes to these words, usually prefixes.

Non-compound names also seem to be drawn from a narrow range of sources, Latin for example, but also older English-sounding words or names or names drawn from other real world languages, often apparently according to a sense of what that language suggests; at times this could even be understood as offensive to those sources.

It's not realistic that every fictional world will have an entirely original language and pantheon from which names are drawn and corrupted, not least if we consider the points on rendering and sales mentioned above. Having said that, it might well be the difference between something seen as average and a work more widely recognised as higher art. Look at the depth the renderings of the languages of Arda add to the works set there.

With compromise between these elements in mind, I wonder if, and how, a reasonably original approach could be created relatively quickly and easily.


thekelvingreen said...

I've always been fond of the way Japanese titles translate back into English, as they have this wonderful blend of being very literal while also bordering on the nonsensical, so you get stuff like "Super Spacetime Fortress Macross" in which the individual words make sense, but the title as a whole seems wrong, almost.

thekelvingreen said...

Of course, the drawback there is that everything sounds like it was translated from Japanese; I like that aesthetic, but I'm aware it could annoy others, and it's not exactly serious.

GDMNW said...

Limited names often accompany writing of limited season. How many books have you read which consist of either endless summer or winter. Or have days which last for unusual periods of time?

Many have been impressed by Tolkien who carefully crafted several languages and made star and moon charts so as to ensure that his seasons waxed and waned appropriately. That's workmanship.

Cronickain said...

The dreaded steel stone wyrm of knight soul legend

Xyanthon said...

I agree, there are many fantasy naming conventions that are becoming quite tedious.

Porky said...

@ kelvingreen - That example seems fairly fresh to me, for being so odd, rather like ArmChairGeneral's phrase. There's nothing essentially wrong with any of these words of course, and I don't mean to say there is; taken out of the continuous stream of fiction they're perfectly good, wonderful even, often simple terms for common concepts. After all, the word for 'star' in a complex, long-developed fictional language still refers to a star, unless of course it isn't what we would think of as one. The concern is really only that words and styles we see so often can seem to fade in meaning after so many uses and no longer stimulate.

@ GDMNW - Limited imagination in general I'd suggest, and that would seem to reflect less work on the part of creator and audience. Passion aside, which I'd guess most have, in pushing back the boundaries and producing a high quality of workmanship, time and funds are likely to be useful, and that could be what's holding us back - lack of a light or related day job and/or a disinterested sponsor, or just a lack of circumstances that can support a long percolation. Tolkien certainly remains a standard.

@ ArmChairGeneral - Number them and you could get a quick random name - maybe that's what they do at the bigger producers? The rhythm and wording of that attempt bring to mind "The Celtic Soul Brothers" by Dexy's Midnight Runners.

@ Johnathan Bingham - You've talked about this kind of thing before of course, and I'm definitely in favour of attempts to shake things up.

Trey said...

I think naming is often an issue of balance and knowing your audience. Some people (like myself) like more exotic, constructed language sort of terms--at least in fantasy. Names like Dlamelish and Hru'u give some people fits though, and get in the way of their fun.

For things like steampunk or near future science fiction, such constructed names might actually get in the way of people getting into the setting, I think. For example, in my world of the City, I've gone with some fairly mundane or mythology borrowed names, mainly because to do otherwise I felt would be a bit of a barrier to the pulpy feel.

Demitria said...

I had trouble with this when writing my fantasy manuscript (not the current one I mention on my blog, but an older one.) I wanted the names to sound fresh, but not too bizarre. I actually ended up taking names from L stops around the city. It worked remarkably well :)

Cronickain said...

I think I'll put them all together and make a random generator for them. I will get back with you on that!

Porky said...

@ Trey - That's a qualification I can back, and it fits alongside the sales idea, of not alienating your audience. Sean Robson made the point re the Grey Knights that borrowing familiar ideas can make it easier to relate to a product, and this is a similar issue. I agree this kind of naming is more to be expected in pulp, and could well be more desirable because of it, and it's also more natural in parody and satire.

@ Demitria - Slick idea there, for something familiar-sounding, but odd or offbeat in a different context. A transport network gives an instant set, though it probably helps to borrow from a less global city if the names shouldn't be too familiar. Nowadays of course we can even find sets like this on the internet with little trouble. I'll file this thought.

@ ArmChairGeneral - I look forward to seeing what you can do. They might well work like the names Iain M Banks gives his Culture novel ships. See this post at Super Galactic Dreadnought for more ideas along those lines.

Cronickain said...

I sent you an email with what I did.

Cronickain said...

You sir are an inspiration to us all!