What's In A Name?
Few fantasy writers (and computer role-playing game designers) have the time or the patience to create an entire working language for their worlds, and use it to create wholly original, intelligent names. There's nothing wrong with that. Even without an original language, there are still plenty of good ways to create plausible names... yet how do so many people get it so wrong?
Would that which we call Norrath by any other name smell so bad?
Long ago, in the ancient realm of Uhsergp, the childless king Pdsfbnncdjkl announced a great tournament. The prize for this tournament was not gold, or fine weapons, or the hand of a fair maiden... the victor would be crowned Prince Regent, and made king upon Pdsfbnncdjkl's death. Pdsfbnncdjkl was old, and he knew his time on the earth was short. None of the other nobles in the Uhsergp had a valid claim to the throne, and the king knew they would protest if he named any of them his successor. The nobles respected strength, however, and King Pdsfbnncdjk hoped they would follow the winner of the tournament.
Knights from every corner of the realm flocked to the great event: Sir Wixkavugh from the plains of Gnillor, Gronst Fleshcrush the Strong of Lesmuc, Lord Fadfrwe of the Ynows Mountains, the brothers Ybrtlei, Yfarienrt, and Ealiuqty from the province of Emcaiar... even the elusive Elvish prince Ma'quell'serni'oryn'da'taille came to fight for the throne.
The tournament lasted many days, and many great champions fell. The mighty dwarf Rockeater Stonechew was struck down by the poisoned blade of the dark elf known as Captain Q'a'tlyv, and the wizard Saru'mann was slain by...
I'm sorry, I simply can't write any more of that drivel. The flaw in the above passage isn't the plot - it may be cliche, but it's no worse than most hacked fantasy. Nor is there anything really wrong with the phrasing - again, it's a bit awkward in places, but it's still infinitely superior to anything written by, say, Dennis McKiernan. The major problem with the passage, the thing that makes any intelligent reader wince in pain, the utterly loathsome quality shared by far too many CRPGs... is the names.
Few fantasy writers (and computer role-playing game designers) have the time or the patience to create an entire working language for their worlds, and use it to create wholly original, intelligent names. There's nothing wrong with that. Even without an original language, there are still plenty of good ways to create plausible names. The writer (or designer) can use common names and variations, like George R.R. Martin does: Jon, Eddard, Bran, and Joffrey are similar to everyday names, but fit just as well in Martin's medieval-style fantasy world. Another possibility is to create simple names that mean nothing, but still follow basic rules of composition - Guy Gavriel Kay's worlds are populated with people such as Tabor, Loren, Levon, and Torc. Yet another option is to use names based on other languages, such as Orson Scott Card's countless character names derived from Portuguese.
There are, as I said, plenty of ways to create good names. Unfortunately, there are just as many ways to create wretchedly bad names. EverQuest is the best example of this: the designers employed at least three different methods to create the thousands of atrocious names in Norrath.
Why bother creating a new language for your game when you can simply rearrange existing English words? I hadn't noticed the EverQuest anagram system when I first started playing... but a friend pointed it out to me a few months ago, and I haven't been able to respect the gods of Norrath since. The names of most of the gods and goddesses are simply anagrams of the deity's role. Tunare, goddess of druids and rangers - Nature. E'ci, goddess of frozen water - Ice. Xegony, from the Plane of Air - Oxygen. To some people, that might make a twisted sort of sense, but I personally could never worship any entity whose name was so... banal. Gods deserve strong names, powerful names: Jehovah, Allah, Odin, Hades. Not Ice.
I don't care how foreign or unusual the Tier'dal language is... names like X'Onnu and X'Lottl would not exist in any sentient culture. Names have to be pronounceable to function on a basic level. Drugged or otherwise incapacitated parents might name their children Happy, or Sunshine, or even Placenta, but no parent would ever be wasted enough to name their offspring F'Lok. Not even dark elven parents. And C'Luzz isn't a name, it's what appears on the screen if you clean your keyboard while in Word.
Descriptive names are generally encouraged in EverQuest, and there's nothing fundamentally wrong with them. A good descriptive name can tell a fair bit about a character's personality. I've had plenty of characters with such surnames: Warweaver, the fighting halfling tailor; Axebiter, the slightly stupid steel-chewing dwarf; Alebane, the perpetually drunken cleric, and a handful of others. But there's a fairly major difference between the name Thorokin Warweaver and Guard Pinebramble. Or Moonshadow. Or Moonwind, or Highmoon, or Moonwhisper, or Noonshadow (the latter makes about as much sense as the name Brightdark), or the dozen other NPC names used in EverQuest for rangers, druids, and wood elf guards. Streamtree... is that the name of a wise, ancient wood elf, or a cul-de-sac in a modern country club subdivision? Either way, it's trite and offensive to the eyes. Names should consist of something more than two randomly selected nature words joined together.
The creators of EverQuest certainly did a good job of taking a vast, potentially fascinating world, and stripping every shred of credibility from it. And I haven't even mentioned the place names in Norrath ("The Vasty Deep" - enough said). The final nail in EverQuest's coffin, however, was driven by the players themselves.
Names like Bobba Fett, Keanu Reaves, and Jayz Funkmaster have no place in a fantasy world, even a world as poorly drawn as Norrath. Most people agree on this point: few things spoil a fragile roleplaying experience more than being accosted by a flirtatious female troll named Brittney Spears. What is more difficult, however, is convincing someone that their name Itsybitsy is just as inappropriate. Those who have such names claim that they simply reflect their personality or appearance... but would you name a child Littlecrier? Or Bigbaby? Or Milkguzzler? Names are simple tags assigned to individuals. Sometimes they mean something, but they're most often because they sound right, or they honour a family member. When I was born, my parents looked at me and said "She looks like a Kate!". They didn't frown, scratch themselves, and say "Uh... well, I don't have any ideas, and the random name generator sucks, so let's just call her Tinypinkthing."
What's in a name? Sometimes nothing. Mnydogg, the name of my dwarven fighter, had no real meaning: it just looked right. Sikandra the mage, Arthan the bard, Thela the halfling warrior... none of them mean anything, but they are names nonetheless. When it comes to fantasy CRPGs, sometimes the simplest names are the best.
I just wish someone had told that to the people at Verant.
For even more examples of EverQuest's naming flaws, check out the EverQuest Easter Egg website at http://amtgard.pinkpig.com/everquest/easterquest.htm.