What would you think of a high and serious fantasy saga about an elf with the daft name Tinfang Warble? It would be hard not to giggle. Good old Tinfang (I imagine him as grinning and exposing some very obvious dental work) was an early creation by no less an author than J.R.R. Tolkien. Who wisely changed his mind, but later had all his first-draft embarrassments exposed in that long-running Book of Lost Laundry Lists series ...
Getting characters' names just right can be quite difficult. In Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry there's a High King called Aileron, which sounds OK unless you happen to know that an aileron is merely an aeroplane's wing-flap. (Now, Wingflap Warble would be a name to conjure with.) The same trilogy includes a minor character called Tandem, who I like to think was borrowed from some past epic cycle.
Let's not dwell on Jack Vance's unfortunately named alien race and their human minions, in his sf adventure novel Servants of the Wankh. The servants are known as Wankhmen. I suppose it could have been worse. Vance, an American, has been heard to grumble about the filthy minds of the appalling British.
Besides getting them wrong, there's such a thing as getting characters' names too right. Think of Isaac Asimov, writing The Stars Like Dust back in the 50s and trying to invent a suitable name for these interstellar tyrants who went around tyrannizing. A tyrannous lot, they were. Utterly tyrannical. Eventually inspiration struck: of course, they had to be called Tyranni, the conquerors from the planet Tyrann!
This is in the tradition of Doc Smith's indescribably monstrous aliens who are named after what his Lensman heroes instinctively say when setting eyes on them: 'Eich!' Likewise, the yukky aliens in Perry Chapdelaine's Swampworld West are sensitively called Splurgs. John Grant pointed out another over-appropriate name in Jane Gaskell's fantasy blockbuster The Serpent, where we subminally gather that this chap is well-endowed: 'He was a young, handsome man. His name was Falicq.'
In similar vein, the lady narrator in Diana L.Paxson's The White Raven makes it subtly clear how another fellow is, er, built: 'He loosened the lacings that held his braes, stepped out of them, and stood before me as naked as I. Only then did he bend to lift back my veil. I felt my eyes widen, realizing that there was more than one reason they called Marc'h the Horse King.'
Lately I've been having fun researching Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time sequence – this is known as the Dark Side Of Writing Fantasy Reference Books – and was delighted by his imaginative use of names. For example, it would be just too cliched to call a sinister range of hills the Mountains of Doom. So, instead, this author broke the mould and created the Mountains of Dhoom. It doesn't feel quite right that beyond these evocatively named mountains, or mhountains, there lies the Pit of Doom (no H) ...
Jordan excels himself in naming his Dark Lord's cannon fodder, the equivalent of Tolkien's crazed hordes of orcs. These are Trollocs – indeed, a whole load of Trollocs. The official guide to the Wheel of Time series reports the subtle names of Trolloc tribes: 'The known tribes include the Ahf'frait, Al'ghol, Bhansheen, Dhjin'nen, Ghar'ghael, Ghob'hlin, Gho'hlem, Ghraem'lan, Ko'bal, Kno'mon, Dha'vol and the Dhai'mon.' Try reciting them aloud.
But if you're a good enough writer you may be able to get away with anything. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books not only have characters called Flay, Swelter, Groan, Sourdust, Deadyawn, and – everyone's favourite – Prunesquallor, but force you to take them seriously. And the irritatingly talented Iain M. Banks somehow gets away with stuff like the drone machine in The Player of Games who travels incognito under the catchy name Trebel Flere-Imsaho Ephandra Lorgin Estral to prevent the hero, Chiark-Gevantsa Jernau Morat Gurgeh dam Hassease, from learning the dark secret of its true identity Sprant Flere-Imsaho Wu-Handrahen Xato Trabiti. 'One drone with two dyslexias,' grumbled John Clute.
Myself, I was of course horrified to discover that Tappen, the lead character in my own novel The Leaky Establishment, has a surname meaning – and the Oxford English Dictionary reluctantly confirms it – 'the mucous plug which closes the rectum of a polar bear during hibernation.' As they wittily say on Procyon 5, 'A bmstoepp'rh by any name would smell as sweet.'
David Langford is wondering if changing his name to Maximilian Bigbux Bestseller would help his literary career.