I’m not someone that thinks about names a great deal. The meanings behind given names and surnames are kind of nifty, and sometimes I think that someone fits their name really well for no particular reason, but beyond that I don’t consider names very much, even in writing. If I’m writing something more contemporary, I’ll try to pick names that sound right and are true to the character’s culture, and I might check the names on a baby name website later out of curiosity, but I’m not someone who will name a character based on a meaning alone. My name isn’t “Gretchen” because my mom wanted to make a reference to Faust (which is, incidentally, an unfortunate Gretchen to be a deliberate reference to) or pearls or daisies, but because she just liked the name: the same goes for my characters in more contemporary settings. I’ll never intentionally write a Jacob supplanting anyone or a Crystal being an oracle that happens to use a glass ball unless it’s the kind of story or setting that justifies extremely appropriate or prophetic names.
My high fantasy characters are more of a mess when it comes to their names. Some writers try to base their fictional names on real-world names or languages, but not me: I just kind of pick sounds I like and squish them together until they look and sound pleasing. If I have different fictional languages or cultures, like I do in Kingmaker, I’ll try and stick to very loose language conventions like “lots of long vowel sounds” or “you could play the language on a snare drum and it would sort of make sense,” but I don’t have very strict rules in place.
Recently, upon prompting from a Twitter post, I decided that I would Google the names of the three leads in Kingmaker. If I happened to come up with a name that happened to be a word in another language, especially one with an association I didn’t want, I figured it would be best to find out before I sent the manuscript through twenty-something people and published it. Overconfident me didn’t think I would find anything of note: I was really wrong. Here’s how.
Kirine is the primary viewpoint character in Kingmaker. She’s a twenty-something human woman and a bard with some traumas associated with adventuring. She doesn’t particularly want to do the job that comes across her path at first, but it becomes clear she has no real choice in the matter.
It turns out that Kirine is the name of a few fictional characters already and at least one musical artist, so hooray for accidental bardic associations. It also translates to something along the lines of “happy” or “pleased” in High Valyrian, albeit with a different pronunciation than what I envision, so I might consider changing her name up a bit just to play it safe with George R.R. Martin. It also does show up on some name meaning and family history sites, but none of them seem to have a great deal of information.
Kirine also gets called “Kir,” and I checked on that as well. It turns out that Kir is a French apéritif cocktail made of crème de cassis and white wine. I’m pretty neutral to that idea, so at least that part worked out.
Taliit is the deuteragonist in Kingmaker and one of Kirine’s closest friends. He’s an elf wizard and the social equivalent of a twenty-something (I’m not certain how elves age relative to humans just yet). Before the novel, he was sidelined by a curse: now that it’s broken, he’s trying to get back in spellcasting shape and prove himself to the people that are skeptical of his ability to fully recover.
Searching for Taliit online turns up some given names and Twitter handles. It also shows up as a typo for “tallit,” which is a Jewish prayer shawl. While the word wouldn’t have that association in the world of Kingmaker, it very well could for the people reading the book. It’s also perhaps not an optimal association for a fairly irreligious character (who acknowledges that the gods exist in some form and have an impact on the world, but doesn’t actively worship any of them or participate in religious services except out of politeness). I’ll consider tweaking this one.
Tarse is Kingmaker’s tritagonist and Kirine’s eventual love interest. She’s a twenty-something human paladin who’s on a divine mission to retrieve the titular artifact before the person wielding it can use it to destroy the world as they know it. True to any mysterious newcomer in the fantasy genre, though, she’s got a few secrets.
Her full name for now is Lentarse, which turns up some surnames, a very small number of hashtags on Instagram, and a Google Translate Spanish result of “slow down” (that I’m guessing, based on the context of the hashtags that accompanied Spanish-languages images and captions, has a “stop and smell the roses” sort of connotation), which are all sort of neat.
Tarse, though. The first result on Google, with roots in both Old English and Proto-Germanic, is “penis.” Granted, it’s archaic (and some of the non-writers I told this story to said that they can see why other words and euphemisms caught on over that one), but it’s still the very first result (tarsal and tarsus appear in image searches, but not on the first page of web results). I’m unlikely to ever become famous enough to supplant an actual dictionary definition, and even if I was, I feel like it’d be sort of unfair to do that to someone who was trying to look up character art or the book itself.
It’s not even an issue that the character is a woman—for all I know, she was assigned male at birth, and because this isn’t a story about being transgender (at this stage in my life, my cisgender self knows better than to go there) it really doesn’t make much of a difference on the plot—but still. Maybe I’m being a prude, but I’m of the opinion that a love interest’s name really shouldn’t be indicative of genitals in most settings and genres. So this one I’m planning on changing, no question.
What I’ve learned from this exercise is that I really should look up my made-up words before writing a draft and a half getting really attached to them. It’s entirely possible that I’m being paranoid, which wouldn’t be unusual for me, but either way, at least I’m aware of these potential issues before I went viral for it. At least I could make this into a writerly public service announcement and laugh about it here, right?