The Women of Fantasy: Context-Free Femininity, Part 2
Yesterday I presented a top-40 list of female fantasy character names. Take another quick look at them now, and if you're curious, see the book, series or film each came from. (An explanation of how they were chosen is below.)
In theory, the "women of fantasy" list could have been the most diverse list of names imaginable. After all, their creators were bound to no linguistic tradition, or even human tradition. In reality, though, the names show enough common trends to make up a distinctive female fantasy style.
For instance, the defining fantasy vowel is "ae." Five of the forty names include that unlikely combo. In part, this reflects the ongoing influence of J.R.R. Tolkein, with his love of Welsh and its names like Aeronwy and Cadfael. But the ae pair appears far more often in a list of fantasy names than in any list of Welsh names. Its real appeal isn't so much its familiarity from Welsh, as it's unfamiliarity from just about everywere else. It looks odd and otherworldly (despite slipping into mild-mannered names like Michael), yet isn't so weird that it trips us up as we read. You'll see a lot of ae's in male fantasy names too, and in future-Earth science fiction.
The bigger trend in the list is names ending in -a. An -a inding is the classic feminine marker in many European naming cultures. In the United States, where vowel-saturated names are currently in vogue, more than a third of girls now receive an -a name. Historically, this is toward the high end; back in the 1920s the -a percentage was less than a quarter. In our Fantasy Forty, it's more than half. What's more, the consonant sounds in the Forty lean strongly toward the soft and liquid, adding to a silkily feminine sound. Yes, given the freedom to invent any culture imaginable, fantasy writers stick closer to the familiar sound of human femininity than real-life parents do.
I can think of many possible explanations for this, and I expect they all contain a grain of truth. The first is that the fantasy genre tends to walk in the clearly defined footsteps of Tolkein, King Arthur, and Conan the Barbarian. While some works do break these conventions and transcend the standard genre boundaries, the genre itself is unmistakable -- and its touchstones all feature predictable sex roles. Set types like the perfect but somehow unattainable beauty, the warrior maiden in skimpy chainmail, and the elegantly wicked enchantress lend themselves to set-type names.
A more sympathetic reading is that writers need names to send signals about their characters, and to help readers keep everybody straight across hundreds of pages. In Earth-based fiction, you can count on a name's history to do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. You don't have to have read the Western romance Montana Dawn to know which of the pair Luke McCutcheon and Faith Brown is the handsome rancher, and which is the young widow. Fantasy writers have to find ways to send meaningful signals with names that are outside of our experience. A girl's name ending in -a does just that.
Or perhaps fantasy spinners are just doing the same thing so many parents do: making new names out of familiar ingredients. Gracelyn and Amberleigh sound like girls; Maxton and Garrick sound like boys; Countess Meliara and Princess Leia Organa sound like fantasies.
I can't help but wonder, though...given a wide-open name playing field, could you invent names that feel elegant, or dangerous, or plucky, or proud -- and distinctly feminine -- without referring back to the familiar?
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How the list of Top 40 Female Fantasy Names were chosen
To identify the significant females of the genre, I turned to the experts: fans. I collected internet lists and discussions with subjects like "20 greatest fantasy heroines" and "Can you name some fantasy novels with good female characters?" A few of the lists focused on film and tv, the rest on books. I then researched each title, making sure it was popular and well-known (e.g. multiple editions, robust sales rankings), and getting a sense of its setting. I ruled out subgenres like fairy tale retellings, which are more bound to preexisting names, and fantasies with real Earth-based settings/cultures/naming systems. (That last is a slippery slope, given the ongoing influence of Medieval England on sword and sorcery stories.)
These rules turned out to virtually eliminate many lists with titles like "The 25 Women Who Shook Sci-Fi." Those were dominated by Earth spawn, from Sarah Connor to Kathryn Janeway to Buffy Summers. Other lists and discussions, while open to every fantasy and sci-fi genre, ended up veering toward the female-dominated world of modern urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Again, no earthlings need apply.
I ended up with a list of about 30 names, but I realized they might not be representative of the genre. Sci-fi and fantasy are notoriously male-dominated, so all of those "heroines" and "strong female characters" could have been skewing my results. I filled out the list by searching for collections of "best fantasy films/novels" and identifying major female characters, regardless of their roles. The non-heroine names proved to fit the above descriptions just as well, if not better.