A Rose by Any Other Name by Linda Palmer


Have you ever read a book that was full of stuff you’d never heard of? By stuff, I mean made-up names for places or things in the author’s imaginary world. Maybe you were reading SciFi. Maybe it was fantasy. Maybe it was another genre. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is whether or not these made-up words took you out of the story.  Did you have to think every time you came across the word? Did you have to remind yourself what it meant before you could picture what was happening?

Nothing bugs me more than made-up names that make no sense and, therefore, cannot be remembered. I’m not referring to character names here. It’s the reader’s job to keep up with the book’s players, though I will say that becomes a challenge when everyone’s name starts with the same letter. For example, I love Stieg Larrson’s Millenium trilogy. I really do. But almost every person in the story has a last name that starts with a B, and when you’re an American, sloppy speed reader like me, keeping them straight is a big fat job. A similar book is Dr. Zhivago. So many P names. There was no spotting the first letter and knowing who’s in the scene. I had to concentrate, which, now that I think about it, wasn’t such a bad thing and could be why the author did it. Way more likely, though, the names were simply appropriate for the time and location of the stories (and I should quit whining and stay tuned in).

But I’m not here to blog about that or to criticize any author’s nomenclature. I mean, who am I to do that? What I do want to do is praise the writer’s I’ve read who got it exactly right.  In other words, all their made-up words work because they make sense.

I’ll start with Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. First, I want to say right out that I think Collins is brilliant. What a tale she has spun. Love, hate, fear, loyalty, betrayal, death, victory. It’s all there, and the amazing thing? It’s so easy to step into the world she made and feel what her characters felt. I give full credit for this to her skill in weaving together things we know with things we can barely imagine. And her nomenclature is a big factor in this.

For example, if you read the word trackerjacker in the appropriate context, it is very easy to guess that you’ve just met a killer insect.  Tracker in a deadly situation such as Katniss’s is definitely ominous. Paired with jacker, which brings to mind yellow jackets, it’s downright scary. I hate to be stung by anything, okay? So I cringed when I saw trackerjacker. It couldn’t be good. It just couldn’t be. And it wasn’t.

Another example from the clever Collins is mockingjay. We know what a mocking bird is and what they do. We’ve all seen and definitely heard blue jays. By combining mocking and jay, Collins has given us a noisy bird that taunts the players or tributes as they’re called (in another stroke of genius). According to Merriam-Webster, a tribute is something you say, give, or do to show respect. Another meaning is an exorbitant charge levied by a person with power of coercion. While tribute isn’t a made-up word, it’s the perfect choice to describe the citizens from each district who have to fight to the death. President Snow, the leader of Collins’s fictional Panem (the perfect name for this ravaged country, by the way), pretends that the tributes are simply showing respect by participating in the Hunger Games. The tributes know very well that participation was never optional and the ending will not be pretty. One word; two shades of meaning; readers who get it.

I could detail more instances of Collins’s clever choices, but I want to move on to the Queen of Nomenclature—JK Rowling. I know I’m not the only reader fascinated by her creativity. There was a much-publicized lawsuit over an unauthorized Harry Potter lexicon containing all the made-up names of characters, ghosts, spells, and critters in her series. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes or break the law. What I want to do is point out how her made-up names usually makes sense in that they conjure an image based on familiar allusions or root words.

Honestly, there are so many that I don’t know where to begin. I’ll focus on my favorite terms in no particular order. First is Diagon Alley, the magical place where Harry shops for school supplies.  Diagonally, itself, makes me think of something that isn’t straight, something sideways or askew. When she split the word, it became perfect for a street just a little out of the ordinary. Directly opposite to the fun of Diagon Alley is the danger of Knocturn Alley. Nocturnal equals night equals dark equals scary stuff. No explanation needed for the shady area where the not-so-nice wizards hang around. A third favorite is Dementors. One look at that word, and I knew I was about to encounter some bad, bad dudes.

Then there are the spells. Alohamora to open doors. Expelliarmus to disarm an opponent by sending his wand flying. Cruciatus to inflict excruciating pain. And let’s not forget the wildlife, those wonderful animals with their perfect names. Hippogriff, grindylows, blast-ended skrewts for example. So easy to imagine because of Rowling’s inspired word choices.

In addition,many of her characters have names that match their personalities—Luna Lovegood (big hearted girl who’s just a little loony), Professor Gilderoy Lockhart (he’s gilded, a fake), Severus Snape (definitely severe and not a little snaky). The list goes on and on.

I have a series of paranormal books that have some made-up names for things. In particular, one book, Wolf Way, was about a fictional Native American tribe. Since I didn’t want to disrespect anyone, I tried to avoid all Hollywood clichés, beginning with the name of the tribe. I didn’t want to use a real tribe that might be insulted by a mention. So I dissected actual tribal names and shuffled until I came up with Quantauk, which I then Googled and didn’t find anywhere.  Of course, that was years ago. If I Googled again, the result might be different. The bottom line is that I came up with a word that reminded me of Quapaw or Mohawk, well known tribes, without actually using (and accidentally disrespecting) anyone.

The point of this blog? I think there’s a good way to create your fictional world and a not-so-good way. While the creativity and fun of making a new word cannot be denied, don’t get carried away. A glossary isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially in fiction. It never hurts to link a new word to something the reader knows. An instant mental picture can result, which makes the writer’s job a whole lot easier.


Bio: Linda Palmer has been writing for pleasure since the third grade and has letters from her teachers predicting she’d be an author. Though becoming a writer was never actually a dream, it was something she did naturally and eventually with intent. Silhouette Books published Linda’s first novel in l989 and the next twenty over a ten year period (writing as Linda Varner). In 1999 she took a break to take care of her family. She learned that she couldn’t not write, however, and began again, changing her genre to young adult paranormal romance. She has twelve full-length novels out as e-reads and in print and there are always more in the works. She also has many novellas and short stories available.  Linda has been a Romance Writers of America finalist twice and won the 2011 and 2012 EPIC eBook awards in the Young Adult category. She married her junior high school sweetheart many years ago and lives in Arkansas, USA with her family.


Website: www.lindavpalmer.com

Link to Wolf Way: http://tinyurl.com/q2hcfkz

Photo credit: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / dizanna

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10 thoughts on “A Rose by Any Other Name by Linda Palmer

  1. Kenneth Weene

    Then, of course, there is Dickens, who created names of people that live on in our common knowledge long after the stories have become out-dated.

    I think, Linda, that you have given us all a great reminder that names of people and places (as well as words in made-up languages) should work to help the reader not just be unrelated to the greater content of the work.

    The book I am currently working on has many Native American characters. Unlike Europeans, the Native Americans, at least in some tribes, changed their names as a function of their lives. And, the Euro-Americans imposed “Christian” names on the Native Americans, especially in the Indian Schools. So I have characters whose names are changing. It does take some effort to keep them straight, and I work at helping the reader while making the names meaningful for the story.

    One advantage for the Native American characters is that their names have meaning. For example, the protagonist starts out as Lonely Cricket (no spoilers here as to why or what his name may become). Immediately, we have images and ideas being generated. On the other hand, Broadmore Tideswell, one of the Euro-American characters, has a name that, while authentic and original, is nowhere near as personal in its implications; and Harry Cook—now that name offers no insight.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing up a good point about writing and reading.

  2. Salvatore Buttaci

    In search of character names, I often took walks in the local cemetery and jotted down interesting names. Once at my computer, I’d mix and match first and last names, selecting those that fit into my characters’ personalities, names that seemed natural and uncontrived. Linda, I very much enjoyed reading your take on story character names!

  3. James L. Secor

    I think hard on character names but am not simplistic or cutesy. I use names’ meanings, which runs into the problem that we don’t name for meaning but for whether we like it or not. Then again, I look at the concept-characterization and find words and combine, like Sal does, to make it up. Same, too, for place names–unless the story is set in a particular, real place (which I rarely do). However, I have saved maps of old, old, old places and will use that as my topography and then name it and time it and, even, culture it as I need. People who just choose a name for no particular reason. . .I don’t understand. I recently read a longish article on naming in Commedia dell’arte and other Renaissance works, all of which were, to be kind, bathroom humor-related.

  4. John B. Rosenman

    I enjoyed this, Linda. Yes, names of people, realms and the like are important, but they shouldn’t needlessly hinder or obstruct the reader. President Snow is a great but simple name, symbolizing the coldness and sterility of the man, who is barren inside.

    Dickens is a good example, and I’m reminded of allegory. Great allegorical works like The Pilgrim’s Progress and some of Hawthorne’s stories employ symbolically appropriate words that sometimes go too far and establish their meaning too crudely. I’m reminded of a Hawthorne story called “The Bosom Serpent.” The Bosom Serpent may be a good term for many psychological failings that ail us, but the character keeps clutching his chest and saying things like “It gnaws!: and “It bites me!” Heavy-handed to the extreme.

    I sometimes think that every name and place in my fiction should be symbolically appropriate, as richly complex as possible. Where do you stop? The hero of my series is Turtan, a mythic name of one word whose origin is shrouded in antiquity, as is his rather ridiculous birth name, Fred Duggs. I play with a lot of things there, and I think I’m saying quite a bit about the possibilities of re-invention, but will the reader harvest even a little of it? That’s an important question, I think. How much of your meaning and intentions will the reader understand? And have you failed if they don’t register it?

    I just reread Robert A. Heinlein’s Hugo-Award winning novel STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. This is the long, 220,000 word version which his wife saved from oblivion after the “drastic cutting” it had previously sustained in being trimmed to 160,000 words. Anyway, Virginia Heinlein writes, “The given names of the chief characters have great importance to the plot. They were carefully selected: Jubal means ‘the father of all,’ Michael stands for ‘Who is like God?’ I leave it for the reader to find out what the other names mean.”

    Great symbolic names provide what one scholar defined as “excellent dumb discourse.” Often, they communicate before they are understood. Sorry if I run on a bit, but your excellent essay is the cause. 😉

  5. Micki Peluso

    Interesting blog on naming places. As a non-fiction writer it’s not usually a problem since I can often stick to actual names, but when worried about lawsuits, I do some kind of mixing of the word place so that it is recognizable but not subject to lawsuits.–hopefully.

    My problem with short fiction is naming characters. I need something I can bond to or my characters don’t connect with me. I often use my kids and grand kids names–much to their chagrin, but it makes me connect to the character better. I enjoyed your post!

  6. Mary Patterson Thornburg

    Names are SUCH fun — or can be. Like Kenneth Weene, above, I love those Dickens names! But I see what you mean about giving things names that are totally unfamiliar in any way to the reader. Even characters. I have a friend who writes science fiction and insists on naming her alien (but very human) characters things like “Sl’AAq’za.” Even if you eventually recognize who this is, there’s no way to pronounce it unless you’re another member of that alien race. And I think you have to be able to pronounce a word to yourself at least.

    I had to laugh at your “Doctor Zhivago” comment. When I was about sixteen I had a two-week summer temp job answering the phone & typing for an “older” man (about 27?) on whom I had a dreadful crush. I thought of him as an intellectual, and maybe he was, but anyway I wanted to impress him with my intellect so I chose, as reading matter, “War and Peace.” Those Russian names! Not only the first and the last, but the patronymic middle ones! I struggled through most of the book without having any idea who was saying what to whom.

  7. Jana Richards

    I judged a contest once in which one entrant gave her characters unpronounceable Sci-fi type names that made no sense, at least to me. Every time I read the names, I stumbled over them, trying to figure out how they were pronounced. They totally took me out of the story. Your blog reminded me that there are ways to give characters and places wonderful, unique names without making them weird.

  8. Dellani Oakes

    I really enjoyed this article. I write a series of sci-fi novels and I try to keep the names just slightly off kilter, but not so weird that they are impossible to pronounce. I get very irritated with (particularly fantasy) books which have complicated, hard to spell and pronounce names. They also put in a lot of apostrophes and I never know what I’m supposed to do with those.
    My aliens do have some odd names, but I try to keep them pronounceable. I don’t think you could pick them apart like your examples above. I simply chose words that sounded good and Googled them to make sure they weren’t something else. I did use objects around me for 2 names. I was writing book 2 at the dojo where my son studied Aikido. I needed a name for the Chairman of the Galactic Committee. Right then, the glass door opened and I saw the dojo name in reverse. I decided to use Volusia (the name of our county) backwards and so Aisulov was born. I needed a name for my villain, and spotted my big, maroon van outside. Thus, Telorvech received her name. (I did invert the last 2 letters, because it was somewhat cumbersome spelled the other way.)
    I love coming up with good alien names which aren’t too impossible to say. At least, I hope they aren’t.

  9. Cynthia B Ainsworthe

    Linda, Thank you for posting this piece. I enjoyed it very much. As I write fiction, I put a great deal of thought into choosing names for my characters. I try to come up with names that are unique, reflect the personality, and yet is easy for the reader to remember. As to places, I like to use actual locations as much as possible.

  10. Bryan Murphy

    In principle, I don’t like to condemn my characters by their names. I prefer to have my readers work out what they are like from their actions and words. However, the temptation to play with names can prove irresistible, especially when the names are not English. For instance, in my forthcoming novel, “Revolution Number One”, the main character is fixated with a woman called Maria da Conceição, usually shortened to Ção, which I expect most English-speakers to pronounce “sow” or “cow”, and she does indeed treat the main character rather shabbily. In “Money”, Martin Amis gives many of the characters names which relate to finance, though my favourite name from that particular satire of his is “Caduta Massi”, bestowed upon an actress rather like a downmarket Gina Lollobrigida. I assume he took it from a common road sign here in Italy which means “Beware of falling rocks”.


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