The Women of Fantasy: Context-Free Femininity, Part 2

Sep 23rd 2011

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?

. . . . . . . . . .

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.


By Long-time reader (not verified)
September 23, 2011 12:45 PM

The first time I tried to write fiction, it was historical fiction set in ancient Babylon, since that was the focus of my graduate studies. It was extraordinarily difficult to find character names that were both true to the period, appealing to a modern ear and consistent with English ideas of name gender. To name a male a character, I finally settled on changing a real period name, Kitti-Marduk (which means "the justice of Marduk") to plain Kittu. I just didn't think any reader would buy a male hero named Kitty.

And my favorite ancient Babylonian name? Imut-hamati. It means "my mother-in-law is dead."

September 23, 2011 12:51 PM

I'm thinking of the works of China Miéville right now. His names are a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar; one male protagonist named Isaac, and a supporting female character named Derkhan are in Perdido Street Station, for example. To Europe-heritage, American ears, I'd say Derkhan sounds very male.

In The Scar, there are a couple female names that feel more feminine: Bellis and Angevine. Perhaps he is trying to make things sound a bit more grounded?

September 23, 2011 12:52 PM

In college, I was in an all female a cappella group with 14 members. All but two of the singers' names ended with either an "a" sound (Jana, Sarah, Amanda) or an "ee" sound (Mary, Holly, Carrie...). To me, those two end sounds are shorthand for "female."

Neither of my two daughters' names end with those sounds, which is one of the many reasons I like them!

September 23, 2011 1:02 PM


Do your daughters' names end with any of the following sounds:

p, b, k, g, t, z, zh, ch, sh, f, ng, o?

September 23, 2011 1:32 PM

"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?"

I got one: Katniss.

Even then, though, it still kind of sounds like a riff off Katherine, and it ends in an -is construction, which are feminine markers. Of course, the world of Hunger Games is still based off the real world, so you still recognize the sense in Primrose, Rue, Glimmer, Cashmere, Clove, Mags, etc.

I think the trick is that you have to engage at least some markers to indicate femininity, but you don't necessarily need to engage the most common ones. For example, plant names tend to be female. So, if you choose a plant name that isn't common in the first place, then it might seem more female.

As an example, consider Teak. It's short, it has two plosives. Could be male. But it's a plant, so... could be female. I'd expect Teak to have a lot of inner strength, tempered by a natural elegance, and probably coming from a jungle background.

Glimmer and Cashmere use a different clue to feminine touches. The softer, sparkly nature of glimmering is automatically a counterpoint to the more direct, larger, gleaming, suggesting that the name is feminine. Cashmere is a material used in women's clothes, but not often in men's. So, names like Sparkle or Rouge might bring a woman in mind before a man.

Any thoughts? Other ideas?

September 23, 2011 1:45 PM

Linnaeus wrote: "I got one: Katniss."

That IS a good example! Using bits and roots of familiarly feminine names gives you extra room to play with the overall sound. Similarly, she was able to use a masculine -a ending for Peeta without any confusion because it echoes Peter.

Hmm...sounds like a special Hunger Games name column might be in order when the movie comes out!

By Guest 01 (not verified)
September 23, 2011 2:06 PM

i think we are certainly limited by our language - there are only so many sounds/syllables we can understand, different languages can understand different sounds but as speakers of English we cannot hear those sounds unique to those languages or so I learned in psych 101. So even though we can try to invent new combinations to make new names, they will always have previous connotations attached to them - that's the magic of names though I think, they aren't real "words" they have no definitive definition (unless they are words but let's not count those for now), they are magic in that they have multiple meanings. Some words do have multiple meanings and you can manipulate those meanings to suit your arguments but only to a certain extent, it cannot go beyond the boundaries of the original definition. but names are just sounds and sounds are relative based on culture.

I think it's not impossible to invent a "new" name that is representative of what you want but it can only be elegant, dangerous, etc. through the audience's understanding of the sounds and those categories - for example "trix" to me has an evil connotation don't know why it just does, perhaps JKR felt the same when she named Bellatrix. Bellatrix, new name, beautiful but edgy and evil - just like the character.

Awesome posts Laura! I love when my love of names and my fangirling can be combined.

September 23, 2011 2:23 PM

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?

Would Cimorene - protagonist of Dealing With Dragons and major character in all of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles - count?

By EVie
September 23, 2011 2:41 PM

I think it's really difficult, if not impossible, to get away from our ingrained cultural ideas of what a name should sound like (whether a male name, a female name, or just a name in general). And as a writer of fantasy myself, I think there's a very delicate balance between something that's too familiar and too strange. Personally, I like to err on the side of familiar, because I find it really wrenches me out of the story when I come across a name that I don't know how to pronounce or that just looks ugly on the page (unless, of course, the character is supposed to be conspicuously foreign, in which case that's the effect you want). I had that problem with some of Robert Jordan's names (Egwene, Nynaeve, the Aiel—eventually I read somewhere how they were supposed to be pronounced, which was totally counterintuitive to me—and until then, it was just really distracting).

But some people find the opposite true—Tamora Pierce has written on her website about how she feels jolted out of the story by coming across a name that feels too familiar ( - all the way at the bottom). Although, if you look at the progression of her writing, the names start out very normal, and become more fantastic as time goes on—she starts out with Alanna, Jonathan, Thom, Roger, Alex, Myles, and by the Immortals series she has Veralidaine, Numair, Onua, Sarra, Ozorne, Yolane.

In the book I'm working on now, which has a 19th-century-ish setting, I deliberately decided to use plausible names for that time period (my characters include Nell, Gabriel, Jonathan, Arthur, Amelia), so that when I did use a fantastic name, it would signal something unusual to the reader. Because if all names are fantastic, it's hard to tell what's weird.

By EVie
September 23, 2011 3:01 PM

Going on—(clearly I have a lot to say on this topic)—George R. R. Martin had the issue of gender identifiability come up when Arya had to pretend to be a boy named Arry. It was made clear in the book that Arya was a girl's name and Arry was a boy's name (I guess it was meant to be a spinoff of Harry, since most of GRRM's male names are slight variations on real names?) Anyway, I wouldn't have necessarily assumed that Arry was exclusively male unless the point was driven home (which it was). At one point, Arya is confused about which name she should give—she doesn't want to tell them who she really is, but she can't say Arry because at this point they know she's a girl and that's a boy's name. She tells them her name is Weasel.

Ursula K. Le Guin has some female names that don't quite fit the usual mold. There is Tenar (which I guess echoes the Hebrew name Tamar, but the -ar ending is usually not feminine to English-speakers), and then Therru/Tehanu (characters in Earthsea have two names, a call name and a true name, which no one is supposed to know). A -u ending is very definitely not a usual signal of femininity. But then, the Earthsea book in which she first appears (titled Tehanu) is itself a re-thinking of the way gender is treated in fantasy. So.

I also should point out, that Tamora Pierce's Alanna books and Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown are also very deliberate responses to the lack of female representation/empowerment in traditional male-dominated fantasy (both of them have written about how they loved The Lord of the Rings as children and were disappointed not to find female role models therein—though of course I can't find the source material for that now). I haven't fully thought through how their name choices relate to that motive, but I do think that Alanna was probably chosen in part because it converts so easily to Alan (which she goes by for most of the first two books)—the contrast between the femininity/masculinity is important to the story.

September 23, 2011 3:02 PM

Cimorene seems female to me because of the echo with the -rene names - Irene, Doreen, Maureen. Ci- or Cy- is a good sound to start with, since it's rather uncommon in English names of either gender, but echos Cynthia most strongly, I'd think. (Si- might lean male because of Simon.)

I haven't read Hunger Games but I always have issues remember Peeta is a male. I think I may conflate him with Petra (F) from the Ender's Game series, in the context of YA books about children forced to fight.

could you invent names that feel elegant, or dangerous, or plucky, or proud -- and distinctly feminine -- without referring back to the familiar?

I'd venture no, since sounds absent of context do not sound elegant, dangeous, plucky, etc. Sounds end up, in names, communicating that only through shared cultural space. -ella becomes very feminine through girls growing up with Cinderella, etc. But simple sounds don't really communicate anything - Ann and Julian don't really have anything in common "emotionally" because of a shared "ayn" sound. (Unusual letters might be the exception, X and Z are always going to look a little more striking than S and D, even in old classics like Alex)

By Jane 6 (not verified)
September 23, 2011 3:26 PM

In answer to the question: of course you always have to refer back to the familiar. You just don't have to do it as excessively or as obviously as it has sometimes been done.

One name that works well for me in this way is Aravis, from A Horse and His Boy. She is a strong, unromantic girl - so no "a" ending. She's from a culture that echoes parts of Arabia, so there is that. But still, she's clearly feminine, and so is her name. That book is also interesting for how it treats the name of the other protagonist. He begins the novel as Shasta, but later we find out that that name was given to him by his cruel psuedo-father. His real name is unveiled only after he's been tested and matured quite a bit by adventure: Cor. Quite a difference there.

Cimorene works well this way, too. Another character who is clearly feminine (a princess) but who is very practical and down-to-earth hence that diner-waitress "-ene" ending. It's perfect for a character who spends half the novel whipping up Cherries Jubilee (a 1950s dessert if there ever was one) and the other half of the novel melting wizards by throwing buckets of soapy water with lemon juice on them.

By Laura V (not verified)
September 23, 2011 3:28 PM

"The Hero and the Crown" is an interesting source, because it is set in a fantasy kingdom where the -a ending is male ("lord" is "sola" and "lady" is "sol", for example) -- yet there is at least one woman in the book, Galanna, who fits clearly into Names Marked Feminine. I've always been vaguely disappointed that the names in Damarian culture were not more different from Standard Fantasy Names -- you do see some themes, such as lots of "th"s in men's names, esp. as a terminal sound (Innath, Mathin, Corlath, Perlith).

One thing that I have always wondered is about the terminal "ee" sound in Damar -- in "The Blue Sword", a woman nicknamed "Harry" is met with surprise and "that cannot be your name", which makes me wonder if it's either not marked feminine, or not marked "name", in Damar.

September 23, 2011 3:50 PM


My daughters are Phoenix and Indigo, though Indigo often goes by Indie. (There's actually a boy at her school named Indiana, which bucks the "a" trend, whose nn is also Indie.)

September 23, 2011 4:06 PM

On George R. R. Martin -- I had to impose a 2 names per series rule for my list, SOLELY because of "A Song of Ice and Fire." Arya, Daenerys and Sansa all received multiple votes in my sources as strong and interesting female characters. Even Cersei got a vote. (Not Catelyn, though. Mothers never get the appreciation they deserve, eh?)

September 23, 2011 4:16 PM

Thanks, Tirzah!

I asked because if we're moving away from standard endings like -a, we need other endings, and I figured that set of endings is more commonly male. Of course, they aren't always male (Margaret, Mab, Indigo...) but it would be interesting to see.

By punkprincessphd nli (not verified)
September 23, 2011 4:37 PM

Alixana (from the Sarantine Mosaic duology by Guy Gavriel Kay) is an interesting example. While the name itself is a familiar re-take on Alix/Alexandra, the character's name is originally Aliana. She chooses to change it when her consort seizes the throne, because Aliana is a name more suited to her former profession as a dancer than an empress. Here the addition of the "x" adds a sort of Roman/Latin air of authenticity to the distinctly feminissima style of Aliana (more often seen, IRL, on Teen MOm babies and Lohan siblings).

By punkprincessphd nli (not verified)
September 23, 2011 4:44 PM

The other key thing to remember in regard to fantasy naming: what linguistic system do the names derive from (or make reference to)? Laura touched on this in terms of Tolkien's Elvish names, but there is a huge section of fantasy lit that derives some of its mythology from broadly Celtic or Dark Ages/medieval cultures. So the Sevenwaters series by Juliet Marillier is not really an example of "universal", non-earth naming, because all her major characters bear names from Irish mythology. Here, the feminine markers are clear - but only within a Gaelic language system of reference. Niamh, Aisling, Sorcha only read as feminine to those familiar with the name. Incidentally, Guy Gavriel Kay used Sorcha as a *male* name in the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy - while it makes no sense from an Irish perspective (or from Sorcha's mom ;p) it does from the type of culture he references in the fantasy world.

September 23, 2011 4:54 PM


There are a number of "O" sound names that I see as female: Willow, Marlo, Harlow, Cleo.... Also, I've noticed that some of the male o names are more on the soft side, e.g., Theo and Milo. Even Leo and Romeo seem soft and romantic to me.

September 23, 2011 5:03 PM

Probably a side effect of my Latin upbringing. I think Mario, Rodrigo, Hernando, Velasco, Federico, Ricardo, Raymundo...

September 23, 2011 5:07 PM

Welcome back, PunkPrincess!

You all have added considerably to my reading list. I better get off the computer!

I think Kettricken, the name of the queen of the Mountain Kingdom in Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy, meets the criteria of being feminine without relying on the familiar.

September 23, 2011 6:08 PM

Speaking of naming in fantasy, it's worth taking a look at E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros. Published in 1922, this book had considerable influence on J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and thence on the development of epic fantasy throughout the twentieth century. I won't rehearse all the names here, but the Wikipedia entry gives all the names and the types of characters to which they are attached. It also refers to the general scholarly consensus that the names are horrible, to the point of being detrimental to the artistic impact of the work as a whole:

Many people (including J.R.R. Tolkien) have wondered at and criticized Eddison's curious names for his characters (e.g. La Fireez, Fax Fay Faz), places and nations. According to Thomas, the answer appears to be that these names originated in the mind of a young boy, and Eddison could not, or would not, change them thirty years later when he wrote the stories down. (above quoted from Wikipedia

The female names are Sophonisba (a real name but perhaps not the favorite of many), Prezmyra, and Mevrian. This last perhaps fills the criteria of female, but not so girly.

By Stephanie (Not Steffie) (not verified)
September 23, 2011 8:23 PM

I read a post earlier about how the names in Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series are too weird, but I really love most of the names he gives to both his male and female characters. Pronunciation is not an issue to me at all, if I pronounce it wrong in my head, who is going to criticize me? Nobody. If it makes sense in my head, that's how I say it. I do it to Tolkien too- I have always pronounced Legolas "Leg-all-us," never "Leg-oh-las" the way they pronounce it (and I assume, how it is supposed to be pronounced) in the movie. The way I say it in my head flows better to me. I think that is something really appealing about fantasy names in general, as a reader, I feel like I am given liscense to be more creative in my interpetation of them because it is fantasy. As far as the place names go, I can think of a lot of real places on Earth that I have a harder time pronouncing that Aiel (Waste) or Shadar Logoth. Many of the nations/cities in Eurasia, Africa and the Middle East come to mind. I guess it is a taste thing. (I feel I have to add, as a writer, I think George R. R. Martin does a better job with plotlines, character development and such, but is a little more boring with his names, which actually bothers me a little).

Some of my favorites for girls, from Robert Jordan, are: Erith (my absolute favorite from the book), Egwene, Nynaeave, Liandrin, Elmindreda (Min), Moiraine (my second favorite from the book), Mesaana, Graendal, Bain, Chiad and Aviendha. There are a bunch of really awesome names in there if you are into names- it is worth reading just for the names. Not all of the characters are good, either. Liandrin, Mesaana and Graendal are all really bad guys, so to speak.

By Jessica Nicole (not verified)
September 23, 2011 11:41 PM

Ender's Game is set a couple hundred years into the future and was written in the eighties. The series has Petra (a name I'd definitely use), Valentine, Theresa, Virlomi, Alessandra (another favorite), Dorabella, Isabella, and Randi. Not exactly futuristic. A spinoff series set 3,000 years into the future has characters like Wang-Mu, Novinha (full name Ivanova), Ela (Ekaterina Elanora), Quara (Lembranca), Cida (Aparecida), and Qing-Jao.

My own short stories with characters born in 2080 have names such as Shira, Alice, Leigh, Kaitlyn, Nevaeh (Kaitlyn and Nevaeh were named after their grandmothers, and Nevaeh goes by her middle name Kieran), Nadia, Madelyn, and Noelle. I'm reading this and thinking I should change a few names. Ideas?

September 24, 2011 1:28 AM

Maybe this is why I can't get into Sci Fi/Fantasy. I can't get past the awkwardness of the character names and places (aside from the fact that the plots make no sense to me sometimes). But if in the first paragraph I am stumbling over how to read the main characters name and where he/she comes from and what they are all about then the heck with it. I enjoy books I can relate to. Miranda, Lyra, or something with an exotic touch would be fine for a witch type character. Names like Amy, Beth, Laura are names I run into every day they can be the girl next door falling in/out of love, or doing whatever else they need to do in a romance or crime drama. Keep it simple for me thank you.

And PPP, nice to see you again. I was wondering how things were with you and the little one.

By Malimar (not verified)
September 24, 2011 12:07 PM

I frequently run roleplaying games and (very) occasionally write fiction, so character naming is something that I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about.

My priorities in gaming are different from my priorities in fiction. As a game master, where the world itself is effectively my main character, among the most important factors for world-building is that names should be basically consistent within a culture, so I usually set up a rule or two for the naming conventions of each culture. Because I unashamedly use cultures that are analogous to real-world cultures, these rules are often just "all names must be a word from X language", and then I usually just use a word that describes the character in question. A less formal technique along these lines is sometimes used in fiction, even when establishing a consistent culture via naming conventions isn't a concern -- ever heard of one Lord Voldemort? I wouldn't be surprised if it were true of at least some of the Women of Fantasy list.

One other key technique that I use (it's first on the above-linked list): take a real name (preferably a fairly popular one), and change one letter. If you do it right, this winds up sounding more foreign than one might expect, and can still (at least subliminally) carry some of the associations one has with real names. I can only recall naming two women with this method*: Raihel and Isaiella. But a few more just off the top of my head: Befh, Suyan, Fisa, Jiel, Fauth.

* I am huge, beardy, extraordinarily unfeminine, and cannot convincingly manage female voices, so I try to maximize suspension of disbelief by limiting the number of female roles I need to play at the table.

September 25, 2011 10:29 AM

@stephanie, not steffie
i read that Erith is Hebrew and means flower. very pretty from Robert Jordan.
@ elizabeth t- found a close name to kettricken - Keturah or i guess it could be pronounced Kettra and there was a variant of Queturah and both those meant incense in Hebrew.

By Jane 6 (not verified)
September 25, 2011 11:40 PM

Here's a fun post on figuring out your Hunger Games name from one of my favorite sites, YA Forever:

"That’s right, peeps! No longer shall you have to suffer the slings and arrows of having a normal name, found in the typical Baby Names books! Nor will your offspring have to suffer in ironic sameness with all the other Mackenzies, Ashleighs, Ariannas, Isabelles, Madisons, Aidans, Jacksons and Jaydens in the Tumble Tots play center. FYA is here to save you!"

September 26, 2011 3:18 AM

Miriam, thanks so much for the recommendation of the Worm Ouroboros! It seems like it would be very much up the alley of things we like to read in our household... and likely a very useful thing to have on hand while feeding a newborn in a month or so.

I had to laugh at Sophonisba perhaps not being the favorite of many, because it IS a favorite of mine and I'm thinking it's quite likely that reading a fantasy novel with the name will further cement its place on our girl name list! I will pass on Prezmyra and Mevrian, but I like that they are appropriately otherworldly yet still feel like names, without having that familiar sheen of "fantasy novel heroine" that this blog does such a nice job of defining.

By Arctic Guest (not verified)
September 26, 2011 9:09 AM

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?

Probably, but it would probably be more effort than it was worth. The character’s name is one way for the author to help define the character. The name, the way it is spelled, the way it flows does a lot of the “heavy lifting” as you say -- a tomboyish heroine gets a tomboyish name, a princess gets a name befitting a princess. It helps that the writer names the character after they know who they are. IRL, we name our children before we have any idea of who they will become and the name and the child blend together. They become their name. I can’t even imagine my son as any of the other names on my “short list.” I still love the name Nathan, but it is not my son. In writing, if I have a character in my head, I still love name Nathan, if it fits this character, then he is named Nathan.

If a reader comes across characters named Gurfipchik and Isalina, they already begin to develop an image of the characters. If it turns out that Gurfipchik is the beautiful, feminine princess’s name while Isalina is the snarling, demonic warlord bent on the destruction of the world, the reader can get a little bit jolted out of the story. Of course, the author would probably have to use some time to explain that gurfip means lovely and chik means sky in this fictional world and language, so a name like Gurfipchik is indeed a lovely name for a lovely girl. They could go on to explain that in the linguistics of this language that g is really a soft sound made at the back of the throat (like the start of a gargle), r is more the soft rolling r of Spanish, and ch sounds like sh, etc. They could also decide that -lina is a suffix that depicts all of demonic extraction. Good lord, who wants to go through all that?

Switch the names around and, like it or not, no such explanation is necessary. The names simply “fit” better. There isn’t that much to explain. It is complicated enough to build a world with its own world-history, that has different climates, countries, and cultures. One doesn’t have to build a completely counter-intuitive naming system (from the Western naming perspective) into it.

I mean an author can create a world in which beauty is judged by how slimy the scales covering a female’s body is. The slimier and scalier she is, the larger her one red beady eye, and the more crooked her back, the more beautiful she is. However, I think it would probably be much too distracting. It is much easier to convey a character’s beauty if she has shiny, waist-length locks, smooth skin, and eyes that glitter. And if she named Alara rather than Fartbut, it flows all the better.

The spelling thing is easy. Nancy belongs on earth. Nansea could easily belong to any country on a planet in a galaxy far from here. (And there is no debate on kre8tive spellings to follow).

September 26, 2011 9:29 AM

Arctic Guest-I wonder now irl, if most parents are bestowing kre8tiv spellings in order to be different or fit in better? I agree with you that Nansea is more fantastical than Nancy. So does Isaleena fit in better than Isalina or stick out more? Does Dayquan just look odd to most and not the spelling of Dekwan? Spelling, perception and assigning qualities based on that is such an interesting topic to me.

September 26, 2011 11:08 AM

Arctic Guest: Ironically, I know of a story with a snarling, male, wolf-headed demon named Inajira.

Jane 6: Hilarious Hunger Games post! I come out Guelpetra G. Seekmanzanita. I think I'll stick to my author name.

Malimar: My gaming and fiction naming are similar, I've found. That is, with the exception of stories where the names are far more central to the story, like my Olivia fairy tale. Maybe I do change for gaming... Here's a list of recent women's fantasy names I've used: Celesta, Wellemeynhe, Valeska, Kazanto, Abzienta (I'm doing the -a thing, aren't I?). I'll change up the names based on the kind of character I'm naming. I've got a female orc named Kazzag, and a number of gnomes: Waywocket, Adalavas, Breechalgandigroot.

By Lunad (not verified)
September 26, 2011 1:30 PM

Speaking of Ursula LeGuin, I was reminded of her main character in "Left Hand of Darkness", Genly Ai, a purposely androgynous character, who's sex is not revealed until the last paragraph of the book. While creating a feminine sounding name is a challange, I would imagine at creating a name that is a) completely androgenous b) liable to stay that way and c) not jarring to the American ear would be even more difficult.

By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
September 26, 2011 3:20 PM

I hate to butt in the middle of this fascinating conversation with yet another naming dilemma, but here I am doing that.

After a very short labour (1.5 hours!), at 2:53 AM on Thursday morning I gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl. We are all smitten, especially her older brothers. Unfortunately, she still does not have a name! I had been so concerned about having to name a third boy and so confident in our short list for girls (which was a great list and many years in the making) that almost all of our naming talks were about boys. Most of our girls names just didn't feel right, and now we're down to Alice and Harriet, but there is something about both names that are holding us back.

I'd like to know if you feel like Alice is too plain of a name (especially with the siblings @tticus and @vner) and if it will have a steep rise in popularity? I have avoided the Twilight books, but in reading about Alice in Namepedia I learned that there is an Alice in the books. Should this be a worry? I love the sound of the name and the simplicity of it, but I'm afraid that it just too plain and/or that it will become too popular. (I read Laura's post on how it was number one in Sweden in 2009 and that it could foretell an upswing in North America. Do you think so?)

And is Harriet too clunky of a name? Too harsh? I've always thought that I wanted a strong name for my girl and am not interested in the names ending in -a, so am surprised at myself for liking the softness of Alice over the strength of Harriet.

To help, other names on our shortlist were: Violet, Ivy, Iris, Lois, Mavis, Margot, Agnes, Hazel, Adelaide. None of them seem right, but those are the type of names we're drawn to. Is there something amazing that we've skipped over that you could suggest?

I really can not believe that we are taking this long to name her. I feel guilt about this and just want to make sure we're giving her the right name and feel like I'm failing.

Help a sleep-deprived mama out?

September 26, 2011 3:58 PM


Quick question: Do you pronounce "Harry" the same as or different from "hairy"? @tticus, @vner, and @lice all start with a short-A sound (as do Agnes and Adelaide), and I was wondering if Harriet had a short-A for you, as well.

By Amy3
September 26, 2011 4:14 PM

@YAG, congratulations on the birth of your daughter! How fun for all of you to have a little girl.

I think both Alice and Harriet are wonderful names. I prefer Harriet slightly because it's strong and loaded with consonants. I also think this is a better match with your boys' names (if that matters to you and it may not). Alice's soft sweetness sort of disappears for me in comparison with their interesting, strong names.

Over the past almost 20 years, Alice has gone from a low of 444 (2002) to 172 (2010). While I'm sure it will continue to rise, I don't see it as top 10 material.

ETA - As for other suggestions, I put Alice and Harriet in Nymbler and many of the others on your short list came up. I tried for some others (and focused on non A- names): Beatrice, Beatrix, Maud(e), Geneva, Tilda, Petra, Rosamund/mond, Zelda. Anything there?

Good luck!

By Meghan w/an H (not verified)
September 26, 2011 4:20 PM

YAG- Congratulations! It's a girl, how exciting! I love both Alice and Harriet, for very different reasons. But rather than jumping into pros and cons of either name, can I ask - what does she look like? Is there a name on the tip of your tongue when you look at her, that might not be either of those names? I will say that Alice is a favorite of mine, and I wouldn't worry about the Twilight associations. Harriet is also great, and I quite like Hattie as a nickname. Beyond the rest of your list, what about Eloise, Mabel or Maude?

(I had other questions, but since YAG's is a little more pressing I'll pop back later on...)

September 26, 2011 4:26 PM

This conversation reminds me of Gulliver's Travels. Swift named Gulliver's young girl mentor in the land of the giants Glumdalclitch. The name Gulliver was chosen because the character is a gull, that is to say, gullible, So to my ears Glumdalclitch has overtones of both glum (which Swift himself could be said to have been) and clumsy, which perhaps someone on a scale of 12:1 in relation to humans would appear to be from a human perspective. A very different Swiftian onomastic invention is Vanessa, so apt and feminine that it has been in use more or less since he invented it--like Shakespeare's Miranda.

In addition to Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros, another early progenitor of fantasy literature is David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus. Both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were influenced by this work, Lewis in particular. Basically all the incidents and characters represent various philosophies/philosophical positions, and I think the names rather reflect that. That is to say, they are not names I would expect to be attached to fully rounded characters. Here is a list of the names of various characters, some deities, both male and female (and one belonging to a third sex). See if you can tell which is which--check wikipedia for the answers

Maskull, Krag, Nightspore, Joiwind, Panawe, Surtur, Oceaxe, Crimtyphon, Tydomin, Digrung, Hator, Spadevil, Catice, Polecrab, Gleameil, Earthrid, Leehalfae, Corpang, Faceny, Amfuse, Thire, Haunte, Sullenbode, Gangnet

A few of these names strike me as Dickensian (Krag, Nightspore, Polecrab), as do some of the names in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels (Steerpike, Prunesquallor). OTOH Lewis's names in his Space trilogy are derived from Tolkien's Elvish.

By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
September 26, 2011 7:51 PM

Thank you for your quick responses!

@Linnaeus - I've been saying Hairy Harry to myself for the last half hour and I know when I read the words out loud I say them differently, but I honestly can't say if when I'm just speaking the words normally that I say them that differently. My Mom is originally from NZ and my Dad is from Germany so I grew up pronouncing words differently than a lot of my peers, but as a teenager I trained myself out of my weird hybrid accent which now means I have no idea how I really pronounce certain sounds.

@Meghan - Unfortunately, no names really are at tip of my tongue. That's what makes me question that we have the right names in front of us. Right now, I think she looks more like an Alice than a Harriet, but will four days predict the rest of her life? I don't know. We were so sure with the boys and it feels so unfair to her that we are so uncertain.

@Amy3 - Your feelings about Alice's soft sweetness vs being interesting is something I worry about, too.

Husband is at work now and I'm sure there will be more conversation once the boys are in bed. Thanks for your support, NEs. You have no idea (or perhaps you do!) how reassuring it is to have this forum. Thank you. :)

September 26, 2011 7:54 PM

@YAG - CONGRATULATIONS!!! Very excited your baby has arrived and a girl too :) Most of the names on your shortlist are on my girl list too and Alice and Harriet are both faves.

I would vote for Harriet though as it avoids the A theme, is stronger and less likely to rise. Alice is beautiful but my vote is firmly for Harriet.

September 26, 2011 9:42 PM

@ YAG How about Hadley nn Hattie
also i saw you had mavis-how do you feel about Maeva (may+va prn.)or Maeve (mayv prn.)

September 26, 2011 9:57 PM

Oh dear YAG-First off, congrats on the new arrival. Let me first reassure you that it is okay to not be able to decide a name. It took me a week with my dd and I still didn't feel confident after that. At first I felt like I settled, but then I found little reasons to love the name. I can only imagine, of course 8 yrs later, one other name I would have named her. (Might have chosen Kimberley instead of Natalie). So, I think I would probably go with Alice in order to keep the theme of the A and also for its sweetness. But, remarkably (or maybe not so) I seem to be in the minority. If I were to step outside those two I would choose something like Beatrice; Hazel; Mavis; Chloe; Phoebe; Vera

September 26, 2011 10:38 PM

@ YAG: Congratulations!!! I love Harriet, esp. with the nn Hattie and Alice feels more common than the others (I don't immediately think of Twilight, but it's still common-ish.) I do really like Alice though!

I plugged Alice, Harriet, and some from the short list into Nymbler and these are some other options:
Marion (I really like this!)

@ Jane 6: I liked the Hunger Games thing, I'd be Lermet E. Gomars... not sure how I feel about that, but it's certainly interesting.

By hyz
September 26, 2011 10:49 PM

YAG, congratulations on your little girl!!! I'm sure every minute without a name feels like a bit of a stressful eternity, but this'll all be a fun story afterward and will pass in the blink of an eye, so try to relax a bit and not make any decision due to stress or anxiety. I think both of the names on your short short list right now are lovely, strong names. I prefer Alice a bit, since I do say hairy and Harry the same, but I really like Harriet nevertheless and would give it the edge in your case if you are on the fence, just in order to break the A pattern.

I love a lot of the names on your longer short list, too, but if those are out... hmm... I doubt there'll be anything here you haven't thought of, but I do really like the suggestions already for Vera, Geneva, Rosamond, and I might add Anthea (A again, but at least a different sound), Pearl, Fern, Laurel, Sylvia, Louisa, Claudine, Delphine, June, Odette, Verena, Helena, Imogen, Virginia, Damaris, Hollis, Tanis, Theresa/Tess.... Anything?

September 26, 2011 11:24 PM

YAG: Congratulations! I love the name Alice, but not sure I love it with your sons' names.

Some ideas:

And I second Odette, Pearl, Virginia, and Marion

Good luck with your decision!

By blaue_libelle (not verified)
September 27, 2011 3:18 AM

This post grabbed me because my son's name has ae in it, as well as liquid, nasal & sibilant consonants, which it seems some people find feminine. I always find that odd, as Latin names ending in 'us' are clearly masculine. Then upon reading the comments, I find someone whose username is the same as my son's actual name.

@Linnaeus: I'm curious, why did you choose that as your name here?

By Arctic Guest (not verified)
September 27, 2011 5:45 AM

First of all, I would like to apologize if my first post came off a little preachy and a lot pompous. That was not my intent!! I didn't really realize that until I re-read it...but I sound sort of like a self-appointed expert on the naming tradition of other-worldly characters. ;-) I didn't mean it like that, but as an unpublished author of an unfinished fantasy novel, this post was actually very timely for me personally, so I have a lot of opinions on the topic. :-)

YAG: Congratulations on the baby girl! Of the two names you listed, my vote is Alice. I don't know if that is helpful since a lot of others voted for Harriet. Alice is a lovely name and goes nicely with the names of your boys. I don't think you should worry about Alice being too plain. A little on the plain side also makes it versatile. Alice can be the girl next door, the diner waitress, or gorgeous Hollywood actress. Harriet, well, I will admit is not my favorite name. It does sound "clunky" to me. That is just me.
If it is any consolation, I had my daughter's name on my list of girl's names for years. Yet, when I would write or type her name for months after she was born, it just looked like it was spelled wrong or something. I started to wish I had named her something else even though I still liked the name. For whatever reason, that feeling persisted for quite a while. Kind of strange. I like her name, though, and if you even suggest to her that she could change it, she gets really irritated. She is very happy with her name. :-)

Linnaeus, I can buy Inajira as a demon. Don't know why. Maybe the j? Sounds kind of snarly or maybe because it sounds like Ninja, which seems kind of boyish?

Zoerhenne, my guess is that the kre8tive namers are doing it to be different without jumping into the untread waters or "made up" names. In high school, I changed my nickname Miki to Mykii. The point was to be unique and creative. I still pronounced the name the same way -- the much easier to decipher Miki. I imagine if I had a child at that time, I would have preferred a kre8tive spelling. Being that I was almost 30 when I did have children, by then, I was firmly in the camp of traditional spellings. I definitely think people have a lot of perceptions of name just from seeing it, which is why in fantasy so many female characters have soft feminine names while the demon and ogre mothers apparently tend to favor names with g's,z's, and x's. ;-)

September 27, 2011 9:12 AM

@YAG - Congratulations and welcome to New Baby! I don't think you could go wrong with Alice or Harriet. Yes, Alice is softer than Atticus or Avner, but not in a wishy-washy way. My first thought was Henrietta, if you can forgive the -a ending. I also quite like Agnes or Hazel from your list. How about:


Do you have a middle name picked out that we could work with, or is that dependent on the first name? Do you think you have a family reason that's keeping the names you chose from seeming "right"?

September 27, 2011 9:15 AM


Linnaeus is a reference to Carolus Linnaeus (or Carl von Linné), the creator of binomial nomenclature for species. In other words, he named everything.

And I agree, a -us is a sign of masculinity to me. Note that -is is a sign of femininity to me, and they can sound very similar if you aren't familiar with the name in the first place.

But, yes, it's got a lot of the "soft" sounds that I myself have said suggest femininity. A boy named Linnaeus would definitely seem masculine to me--although Linnae or Linnaeis would seem feminine to me. Funny how a little change here or there can change the whole feel of a name, isn't it?

By JRE (not verified)
September 27, 2011 9:30 AM

JAG - I like both Harriet and Alice. Alice seems to shrink back against your boys' names. They have names that stand out and she deserves the same. Harriet pops out there too, just like the boys' names.

If you're looking for a more "powerful" A- name, Adelaide fits that bill as would Adele or Adela or Adeline. There's also Amelia which has nicknames to cover whatever personality she has - Amy, Millie, Mia, Lia. And Annelise/Annalise/Anneliese.

Non-A names that have "oomph" to stand against the boys' names : Linnea, Louisa, Caroline, Victoria, Eleanor, Elena, Genevieve.