Choosing Names Isn't Easy - Discussing Mien's Names

In fantasy or sci-fi writing, names are powerful. They impact how the readers imagine a character, a fictional country, their culture, clothes, and everything around it. As readers, we pull on from anything familiar to ‘fill in the gaps’ and imagine a world that is not ours.

Let me discuss my little “battle” finding names for the characters and places in Mien. Be warned, there may be very minor spoilers here.


Naming the Alchemists

Back when I was first drafting Mien, their name came first, along with the title of the story. According to Cambridge’s Dictionary mien means “a person’s appearance, especially the typical expression on their face”, which was perfect for the character. Because of that, I decided straight away to name the other alchemists with names that would be short, in English, and somehow carry a meaning regarding their individual identity (e.g., Verve is quite exuberant, while Hellion… well, not going to spoil it).

In this case, I was happy with English-derived names because I wanted to use the word (e.g., mien) and the name (e.g., Mien) in specific, wordplay-like sentences. Such as:

“I’m the façade holding realities together. That’s my mien. I am Mien.” – Mien

And the Other Names?

After naming the alchemists, I sat watching my screen, pouting, and wondering what names I could use for the rest of the world. For some reason, I wanted to use Spanish-sounding names, but… they all sounded so common. Not fantastical or magical, just… a real-life name. Cue in a memory a decade old, I was talking with a Finnish colleague, who argued that reading fantasy in Finnish actually “took all the fantasy away”–and her statement now suddenly came reinforced, because that was how I felt.

Seeking a second opinion, I went in to chat with the developer of Prowess Games (the developer of Unearthed Stories, where Mien is published). The dev, quite accurately, gave me an interesting insight: “They sound common to you because you grew listening to those names,” he told me.

After that, I sat again watching the screen, fascinated by the accuracy of that statement. Why can’t common also be fantastical? Why, even if I understood (and agreed!) with the logic of the statement, still felt like that? I’ll hazard a guess. Foreignness is part of the fantastical, yet… how often we then to disparage details of our own culture, in favour of mainstream stuff, simply because we learn that ours is boring, and foreign is cool? (Let me do a parenthesis here. I acknowledge that there is plenty to discuss regarding that rhetorical question. However, discussing it is not the point of this blog. Let’s be honest, it could be one on its own.)

Realising this, my commitment to use Spanish-sounding names came back reinforced. Note that, even though I’m a native Spanish speaker, I’m saying Spanish-sounding names. The reason for this is because I wasn’t aiming for grammatical or historical accuracy, but for names that would give a feeling to the world and the characters. After all, plenty of English-speaking writers use English-sounding made-up names.

Thus, pursuing that commitment to use Spanish-sounding names in this story, I arrived to two dilemmas:

  1. How to use Spanish-sounding names in a way that would still keep the fantasy (for me at least)? And,
  2. How to make those names accessible to all? I believe that we have all been in that position of reading a fantasy book, with an author-created name, wondering how to read it and coming up with three-to-four different pronunciations.

Answering those was quite a journey, to be honest.

Naming the Characters

Regarding naming people, I had a moment of enlightment–if the names are common because I grew up with them, then let’s pick names I didn’t grow up listening to. Language and names change quite often, and thus, it is highly likely that medieval names would do the trick.

For historical reasons also beyond the scope of this article, medieval Spanish-sounding names mostly come from a very specific peninsula–hence, I ended up learning about medieval Spanish and Castilian names1. In particular, I picked names from the 10th century, up to the 15th century.

For example, Ende’s name comes from the first Spanish female manuscript illuminator whose work is documented; little is known about Ende the artist, but I felt the name actually had a nice ring to it, and that Ende (the character) could be considered an artist (not literally, though). Likewise, Mécia (the character) was named because of Mécia Lopes de Haro because I thought the historical figure had the same powerlessness of the character.

Then, there were other names that were picked because they could tease the readers, so to speak. Namely, those are names that I liked, that spell exactly as-is or quite similarly in English, hence likely leading to mispronunciation. Why? Because I wanted to tease with the multi-faceted style of those names, since those characters are, well, multi-faceted. These cases are Silo, Irene, and Teresa (it is not Theresa, but Teresa, in Spanish).

Naming the Places

Naming places was a bit more complicated. Generally, geographical features are often labelled (or referred to) with the feature tag plus a name; for example, the Mediterranean Sea. Before deciding anything, I considered two possibilities: (i) either name the entire thing in a non-English language (e.g., Golfo de Siderurgia), or (ii) keep the feature tag in English, and use Spanish for the actual name.

I decanted for (ii), because it seemed more helpful to the reader (who is reading a story written in English); an English feature name would likely assist in “imagining” the geographical feature without having to describe it. This was critical to me, because the map is not “ready at hand”–this is a text-based game, so you cannot flip a few pages, peek at the map, position the characters, and then go back to read. Yes, there is a map (spoiler alert, you can discover it in Chapter 3), but you cannot flip back and forth as easily as you do in a book.

So, cue in a few hours in which I tried to find words that I could read with a neutral Spanish accent, and that would be somehow meaningful for the plot/world.

For example, the Gulf of Siderurgia would be the industry of iron and steel, which in turn, is relevant for the story that happens there. We have Diamante, the town that was something unique and important amidst a long travelling route, or Fortuna, the wealthy city. Fortuna is actually tricky, because I didn’t name it due to fortune but due to a slang/variation used in my country, where fortuna means that sizeable wealth that is difficult to think of. Then, Cobra River because it is sinuous, and Port Sur because it is in the South.

Nikel is weird, because I changed the spelling on purpose. The metal, nickel, is called níquel in Spanish, but it turns out that Barquel was already using a que syllable, and I wanted variety… because reasons. So I named it with a k, because ke and que sound the same in Spanish.

Sharing the Names

Truth to be told, I wanted people to be able to read the names. Let’s be honest, in terms of sounds, Spanish is very simple–there is a single way of reading the vowels (meaning five strict sounds for each), the rules for stressed syllables are consistent, and if you read in neutral Spanish (you can read more on that here), there are even fewer sounds for the consonants.

Now, add to the mix that Mien is a complex story–the character is investigating, and so accumulates knowledge. Remember that Mien is interactive fiction, so to avoid undoing decisions, Unearthed Stories (the game were Mien can be read) does not allow going back. I imagined this could prove difficult for some readers, so I added a wiki in the game–basically, Mien (the character) has some moments of doubts and considers “reviewing what has been learned” (the player/reader can read it or ignore it).

Fast-forward to my dilemma with names, and I had another aha! moment–the wiki was a great opportunity to share how the names should be read. Now, how to?

You may laugh, but the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) sounds for Spanish are quite difficult to get, and many are regional only (e.g., would work well for Spain’s Spanish, but not for neutral Spanish). Depending on the website that you query, you are going to get different recommendations for IPA sounds… and some will be okay for some countries, and others will be totally off.

After much going back and forth (and some research into IPA symbols), I added the IPA and the regular syllable-by-syllable spelling to the wiki. You can see that in the screenshots below. I think it is quite handy, to be honest! They may have looked better in a serif-style font, but alas, overloading the game wasn’t a goal ideas.

Some Final Thoughts

First, writers can invest a lot of effort in a tiny detail that is most likely going to be overlooked by the casual reader. I do not mind, that’s part of the joy of writing.

Second, blog post is in no way prescriptive, but an insight into my train of thought that went into something as simple as names for this story, what I chose, and why. In my case, I decided to add pronunciation guides on that wiki because (to me) it made the names more accessible, but that was my choice.

Ultimately, each person is free to name their characters as they want, and share as much or as little information as they want. Do you want to create fantasy names? Go ahead! Use pun-intended names? Do it! Use names from the real world? Go for it!

In any case, thank you for reading.


Footnotes

[1] I asked about this in a group of writers, in which a knowledgeable person explained that: “In the Middle Ages the language was not Spanish and Castilian. Castilian was a regional language and the other forms of Spanish were known as Andalusi Romance; it used to be called Mozarabic, but that term suggested only Christians spoke it, and it was the standard language ie Moslems, Christians and Jews all spoke it. So, scholars now call it Andalusi Romance, Galician, and Castilian. All of this changed with Ferdinand and Isabella, but they’re the very end of the period you use, so you don’t need to worry about that.” However, I decided to use Spanish and Castilian in the post, because that was my thought at the time, and I was aiming to share my thoughts at that moment.