The Women of Fantasy: Context-Free Femininity

Sep 22nd 2011


Is there a universal feminine sound? I mean really universal, even in worlds with multiple suns or silicon-based life forms?

Imagine you can invent an entire world from scratch. You're free to create its climate and geography, its plants and animals, its cultures and history. You can imagine it as a single isolated community, or a multi-planetary world with all manner of sentient beings. To a few of those sentient beings, you'll grant unique personalities, life stories, secrets, ambitions...and names.

This is the extraordinary freedom of the world-building fantasy writer or filmmaker. Realistically, though, human writers with human audiences tend to follow conventions of the human world. Most characters are recognizably "people," in the flavors male and female. How do they express those sex identities, in name terms?

To find out, I compiled a top-40 list of female fantasy character names. I'll explain my criteria and methods a little later, but for now let's go straight to the names. 

The Female Fantasy Forty

Aerin Elora Maerad Senneth
Alanna Eowyn Mara Shallin
Alixana Jaenelle    Meliara Sorcha
Althea Jame Menolly Thasha
Arya Kahlan Morgaine    Torina
Daenerys    Katsa Phèdre Trinity
Daine Keladry Polgara Vin
Denna Leia Raederle Xena
Dionara Lyanna Renie Yelena
Elaira Lyra Sabriel Zula

 

Does that list tell us anything? I think it does, and I'll share my thoughts in the next post. In the meantime, feel free to share yours -- and fantasy buffs, feel free to wrack your brains about where each of those names came from.

Done thinking? On to part two of female fantasy character names!

Comments

1
September 22, 2011 12:21 PM

Daine is short for Veralidaine.

Other names: Lirael, Cimorene, Alianora, Hallana, Keredwel, Galanna, Shiara, Sandrilene, Trisana, Akki, Tenar, Karlene, Annice, Stasya, Evumeimei, Kirrith, Arielle, Sanar, Ryelle, Katah...

2
By TKB
September 22, 2011 12:26 PM

Aliens also identify -a ending names as primarily female, and are deathly afraid of hard consonants, apparently. Sorcha and Sabriel and Raederle are about the only ones I can see with a plosive central consonant.

I know waaay too many of these:

Aerin, Eowyn - Tolkien
Arya, Daenerys, Lyanna - GRR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire
Alanna, Keladry - Tamora Pierce
Deena - Rothfuss's Kingkiller Trilogy (Also my dog!)
Leia - Star wars!
Lyra - Golden Compass
Morgaine - Arthurian legend
Phedre - Only know the one from Racine?
Trinity - The one from the Matrix?
Vin - Sanderson's Mistborn
Xena - ... Spoiler Alert, it's Xena!
Zula - Conan

Yelena - I thought this was a Russian form of Helen? Sorcha I only know as an Irish name.

I wonder if the criteria involves inspiring a SSA measurable number of babies using the names? Sabriel is really quite lovely and I knew an Alanna born before the series.

3
By Amanda RW (not verified)
September 22, 2011 12:52 PM

An obsession with the Irish. A lot of these names appear to have Irish influences. They also often end in the letter A, just like the feminine ending in Romance languages. Not only are other worlds apparently inhabited by humans from Earth, they are specifically of the European variety.

4
By AWWH (not verified)
September 22, 2011 12:52 PM

Seems like alien girls love a good vowel-combine!

5
September 22, 2011 1:02 PM

Seems like a lot of -aer or -ar combos for the first part of the name, some good L's or S's mixed in with a dash of schwa endings. Something like (the completely made-up just now) Aerlysissa or Llyradanna or such would fit the bill as well.

6
By JMT (not verified)
September 22, 2011 1:43 PM

done quickly based on my assumptions/best guesses about pronunciation: 21 stops, 16 fricatives, 38 liquids (in only 40 names!), 27 nasals (overwhelmingly n, no engma!), 4ish glides (despite the appearance of lots of orthographic y) and 2 affricates.

I have no idea how this compares to standarder names but I have to imagine the liquids and the n-m-ŋ ratio is unusual.

I didn't count vowels specifically but they seem mostly front. And like others noted, a lot of vowel endings - only 12 end in consonants (again, phonetically, not orthographically). Not sure that's unusual for names right now though.

Orthographically, there does seem to be a need to make names look unusual.

Can't wait to read Laura's take!

7
September 22, 2011 1:47 PM

I agree with the Irish influences (or at least vowel-heavy European influences).

I've been noticing the Kat- trend a lot lately. Katsa from Graceling (on your list), Katniss from Hunger Games, and then I just read Robin McKinley's Spindle's End, and one of the 2 main females is Katriona.

Spindle's End is older, but since Hunger Games and Graceling are new and very popular, I wonder if there will be a resurgence in Kat- names for girls.

8
September 22, 2011 2:31 PM

I saw Aerin as coming from the TV show Farscape. I don't remember the Tolkien reference.

Althea is from Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders trilogy.

I can't wait for tomorrow's post!

9
September 22, 2011 2:52 PM

i saw Sabriel and Lirael(that another poster listed) in a book of angel names.

10
By guest 01 (not verified)
September 22, 2011 2:52 PM

Female names in fantasy I think lean towards the exotic and romantic. But generally they sound 'magical' i find. I mean really if you think Harry Potter -> the boys are named Ron and Harry and the girl is named Hermione. Tolkien used Old English and Finnish as inspiration for his names/languages, and Tolkien had huge influence on the genre of fantasy. but even if you go back, I think the trend is there still.

A lot of the names I recognize have already been mentioned but a couple other ones are

Denna and Kahlan are from the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind
Polgara is from the Belgariad and other Eddings novels

On the other hand Male names I find to be completely plain and common. take Song of Fire and Ice - Robb, Jaime, Ned, Jon, Robert, Petyr, Samwell compared to - Sansa, Arya, and Cersei

But also I think status/purpose/character has a lot to do with names in fantasy - names are really important in fantasy because they are supposed to tell you a lot about the character particularly - where they are from, what their class status is, if they are good or bad.

11
September 22, 2011 3:08 PM

No one recognizes Menolly? Menolly of the Nine Fire Lizards? Harper Hall of Pern, anyone?

I don't know. To me it seems like they're mostly common names with a small change to make it exotic.

Example, Melanie/Mallory = Menolly.

12
September 22, 2011 3:34 PM

i know this is really random, but there is a demon in buffy the vampire slayer called the polgara demon. (that word just always stuck in my mind; i swear i don't have some sort of bizarre encyclopedic knowledge of the hundreds of monsters that have appeared on buffy...) but now i'm wondering if it was a(n) homage to the eddings novels. (i'm never quite sure how to pronounce homage, thus the a(n)... :D)

13
By TKB
September 22, 2011 4:06 PM

Elizabeth - Aerin in Tolkien is in the Silmarillion, she gets married off to, and later killed by, the Easterlings. thttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aerin

Interesting that some of them pop up more than once. Eg, Deena, Aerin. Elaira is a very minor character in World of Warcraft (She's a druid who teaches players how to transform into a bird.) She might be a tribute to another work I don't know?

I'd have thought Polgara would show up fantasy with ghost-like creatures, considering the similarity with "Poltergeist" but not so, apparently.

A google for Jaenelle shows she appears in a series that also stars women named Dorothea, Hekatah (there's that "kat" again), Surreal SaDiablo, and Lady Arabella Ardelia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Jewels)

14
By Lyralen (not verified)
September 22, 2011 4:28 PM

One of my favorite fantasy names is Liralen, from Patricia McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

15
By cnoocy (not verified)
September 22, 2011 4:37 PM

Raederle on the list above is from a McKillip series as well, the Riddlemaster of Hed.

16
September 22, 2011 5:07 PM

Cnoocy: You beat me too it! I was excited to see that Raederle made the list. Other female characters in that series: Lyra (full name Lyraluthuin), Tristan, Eriel, Elrhiarhodan (El).

Other Tolkein names I like: Galadriel, Undomiel, Silmarien, Arien

No Wheel of Time Characters made it, so here's some female names from that series: Egwene, Faile, Elaida, Nynaeve, Moiraine, Aviendha, Min, Aeldra, Alviarin, Verin, Liandrin.

17
By EVie
September 22, 2011 5:33 PM

GREAT topic!

Aerin is also the protagonist of Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown, which I would consider a significant work in the genre (it won the Newbery Medal in 1985). Daine is also Tamora Pierce (short for Veralidaine).

One of my current favorite fantasy girls' names is Sansa, also from A Song of Ice and Fire. I wonder why she didn't make the list, since Arya, Daenerys and Lyanna (a minor character, already dead when the story opens) did? This makes me VERY curious about the methodology. I know Sansa is unpopular among fans because of the way she behaves in the first book, but I think she redeems herself... and her name is so simple and pretty. (Of course, I haven't read the most recent book yet, since I had forgotten too much since reading the last one... I'm slowly catching up, still on A Storm of Swords). Another one that I liked a lot was Ygritte.

guest 01—I think GRRM also has a lot of male names that are on the fantastical side. Take Viserys, Rhaegar, Aerys (pretty much all the Targaryens, acutally), Tyrion, Tywin, Jorah, Davos, Beric, Gendry, Theon. And there are occasionally more mundane female names too—Joanna (Lord Tywin's dead wife), Catelyn (though it's pronounced CAT-uh-lyn), Lysa, Beth (Cassel)... though admittedly not as many. His cast of characters is so large and diverse that it's hard to pick out a representative sample.

18
By TKB
September 22, 2011 5:48 PM

This is partly off topic but I was re-reading The Little Princess (1905) this weekend, and thought of this blog. The main character, a fanciful little girl, comes up with fantasy names for a family of children that live next door.

- Ethelberta Beauchamp
- Violet Cholmondeley
- Sydney Cecil Vivian
- Lilian Evangeline Maud Marion
- Rosalind Gladys
- Guy Clarence
- Veronica Eustacia
- Claude Harold Hector

I think it's so interesting what sounds like mundane old people names to us were beautiful, and ridiculous then, while some of them are full antique/faux antique revivals now. Strange to imagine that 100 years ago, Lilian and Ethelberta were a good literary sibset. (Also that Vivian was a male name.)

19
By lia
September 22, 2011 8:31 PM

oh gosh. I know too many of these.

Aerin: Tolkin's The Silmarillion, also in Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown
Alanna: Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness quartet
Arya: George R. R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series, also used in Christopher Paolini's Eragon books
Daine: Tamora Pierce's The Immortals quartet (full name Veralidaine)
Dionara: Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana
Elaira: Janny Wurts' Wars of Light and Shadow series
Eowyn: Tolkien's LOTR
Jaenelle: Anne Bishop's Black Jewels series
Kahlan: Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth
Katsa: Kristin Cashore's Graceling
Keladry: Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small quartet
Leia: does Star Wars count?
Lyanna: George R. R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series
Lyra: Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series
Maerad: Alison Croggon's Pellinor series
Mara: um. there are a lot. but I'm guessing Star Wars is what put this name on the list?
Meliara: Sherwood Smith's Crown/Court Duel books
Menolly: Anne McCaffery's Pern series (i think there's a specific heading/series with the harper books in it, but I can't remember the name)
Morgaine: Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon
Phèdre: Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series
Polgara: David Eddings' Belgariad series
Raederle: Patricia A. McKillip's Riddle-Master Trilogy
Renie: Tad Williams' Otherland series (short for Irene)
Sabriel: Garth Nix's Abhorson trilogy
Senneth: Sharon Shinn's The Twelve Houses series
Sorcha: Juliet Marillier's Sevenwaters Trilogy
Thasha: Robert V.S. Redick's The Chathrand Voyage books
Torina: Victoria Hanley's The Seer and the Sword
Trinity: uh. does The Matrix count? lol.
Vin: Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy
Xena: does the warrior princess count?
Yelena: Maria Snyder's Poison Study books

um. yea... read a lot of fantasy as a kid... and specifically those with strong female characters. I think there were 15ish that I couldn't recognize? Also, some of those books are SF, not really fantasy. Most all of them are series of books, and popular series, so that could account for their status on the top-40 list.

20
September 22, 2011 8:34 PM

Thanks, TKB! I only read the Lord of the Rings; that's why I didn't recognize Aerin.

Inara from the show "Firefly" could also make the list. The other female characters' names sound too pedestrian for this list (Zoe, Kaylee, and River).

21
By lia
September 22, 2011 9:00 PM

After reading all the comments, I can't believe I missed Althea from Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders series... oops. Though, I did like Hobb's Farseer/Fool books better.

Also, anyone else wondering why there are no "C" names on the list? There are a couple other alphabets missing, but that one struck me because there are lots of common girls names that I can think of that start with "C."

22
September 22, 2011 9:49 PM

lia, hard to tell, since Laura has yet to explain her criteria and methodology, but perhaps K is more "fantastic" than C? Missing from the list (for reasons yet to be explained) are Cersei Lannister and Catelyn Stark, although Arya, Daenerys, and Lyanna appear. There is also Chani (ch as in chair) in Dune, although Dune is science fiction, not fantasy, and very prescient science fiction at that.

23
By annaBee (not verified)
September 23, 2011 12:39 AM

Elizabeth T- On Farscape, it's spelled Aeryn. I didn't realize there was Tolkien Aerin.

24
September 23, 2011 9:38 AM

JMT: I agree, those liquids are a very prominent feature in those names, and continue to push the "breezy femininity" discussed earlier.

I've had a thought in the back of my head that the most elf name (since, half the time, elves are used as one kind of feminine ideal) was from the Dragonlance series: Lauralanthalas. The other big trend is the tacking on of -iel at the end of elf names, male and female.

As for angel names, -el is traditional, since it means "the one," i.e. God.

25
By guest 01 (not verified)
September 23, 2011 10:12 AM

EVie - lol you got me, I was trying to avoid the more fantastic male names to prove a point but clearly it's not a universal truth. it's just a trend i've noticed in the genre that men tend towards blander but very strong manly names and the women have really creative names that make them seem hyper-female using our notions of what is a feminine name and what isn't. I think this way of naming in fantasy accentuate gender rather than try to move away from it. unless they specifically are trying to mask gender, or the character's gender is questionable then you can generally instantly tell a character's gender from his or her name.

I think because Fantasy is about entire world building - it's important to have a lot of information and names are a perfect way to give information without out right stating it. So Daenerys and Viserys their names clearly make it known they are different than Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark's people. But we can only build worlds relative to our own understanding of things - we can create "new" things but generally we just rely on old things - like Tolkien's use of Old English/Finnish to create a "new world" - even Elves follow gender naming practices.

allij28 - YAY Wheel of Time, I was sad none of them made the list

26
By Ravin (not verified)
September 23, 2011 10:50 AM

I remember reading in the Lord of the Ring appendix Tolkien threw in a note that -a is a masculine ending in hobbit culture so Bilbo and Frodo's names were actually Bilba and Froda but were changed for human ears. I don't know how many people read the appendices, but he puts a lot of interesting thought in to culture and language building that didn't fit in the books.

27
September 23, 2011 12:26 PM

Ravin--

Many Anglo-Saxon (Old English)masculine names end in -a: Aella, Anna, Penda, Offa, etc. Tolkien's appendices (actually the entire works) are full of various winks, nods, and inside jokes addressed to his fellow Germanic philologists. For example, when all the dwarves first show up, someone who can read Old Icelandic says, "Oh, those are the dwarves from the Dvergatal!" Frodo's name is derive from Old English adjective meaning old/wise. When we first meet him, he isn't, so we wonder whether his name will eventually suit him, or will it continue ironic. And so on.

28
By Al Harron (not verified)
September 24, 2011 9:55 AM

The irony is that Zula was originally a male character in the Conan comics whose name was taken for the film because it "sounded" girlish.

29
By bluegirl (not verified)
September 27, 2011 2:25 PM

Aerin is from Robin McKinley's "The Hero and the Crown."

30
By Tarmie (not verified)
September 28, 2011 2:54 AM

I'm thinking Sorcha is from "Willow" ... or was that Sorsha?

Aerin made me think of Aeryn Sun from "Farscape". And while I'm thinking of Claudia Black characters, she also played Vala in "Stargate" ... though admittedly, those were sci-fi, not fantasy as such. ;)

31
By Alanna (not verified)
October 9, 2011 7:47 AM

I am an Alanna born before the series. I still remember wandering into a Scottish bookstore on a big overseas trip when I was about 13 and seeing my name on a book - I was beyond thrilled. I took it home and prominently displayed it on my shelf - after years of never being able to find a bicycle license with my name on it - it was like I was suddenly famous and accepted as having a "real" name! :)

As it turns out I married a science fiction/fantasy fan. Maybe there was a little subliminal something there working that I didn't even realize?

My parents chose my name as a tribute to our Irish roots and they first heard the name when one of my Dad's friends married an "Alanna". So the name has been out there for a while - I'd guess she was born in the late 1930's or early 1940's. I still run into it as non-proper noun when reading some (usually early 20th C.) Irish literature where it is used as a stand in in conversation for "beloved child".

32
October 9, 2011 2:12 PM

I don't remember the Aerin from Tolkien, but Aerin is definitely the main character from Robin McKinley's "The Hero and the Crown."

Edited: I see some other McKinley fan already got there before me :)