Latest posts
Latest posts in Writing

The art of naming monsters

Created Wed 15 Feb 06 - 23:59 by Mithandir in category Writing

Naming things is one of the banes of writing, especially in the fantasy and science fiction genres where it extends beyond characters to creatures, technologies and so forth. It is also, in my opinion, one of the hardest things to do. This is because names are important for a multitude of reasons, not least of which the fact you're likely to encounter them frequently.
While I might discuss some of the more general aspects of naming at a later time, in this post I am going to focus on the art of naming monsters (webster's dictionary defines art as '1 : skill acquired by experience, study, or observation' and '3 : an occupation requiring knowledge or skill'. For 3 it gives the example 'the art of organ building' which makes me wonder who habitually constructs hearts and livers, but I digress).

'Monster' is of course itself a name. It derives from Latin monstrum which I am reliably informed means 'omen' or 'monster' (obviously) and which in turn derives from 'monere', meaning 'to warn'. This is reflected in what I consider to be one of the guiding principles of monster naming: something I have come to call the point-and-run criterion.

The thesis is simple, and based on the Darwenian principle (those names persist whose inventors survived): when encountering a monster one has to be able to point, shout the name to warn others, and run away.

According to this idea, monsters which are either aggressively dangerous or fast should have short names, so that no time is lost in the warning. You’ll note that many established names follow this pattern: Trolls, Snakes, Ghosts, etc. are all single syllable names, as are some modern fantasy names like Orcs (lord of the rings), Garrs (sword of truth). Other, usually less urgent, names use the still quite short double syllable form: dragons (can often be seen from a distance), gargoyles (not known for speed), etc.
Conversely, it is perfectly alright to have a flesh-eating rhododendron, because, ignoring freak cases of plate tectonic activity, they are unlikely to jump up and grab you (a more appropriate moniker for the technique would perhaps be the point-and-laugh criterion in this case).
Some established monsters break the criterion. It is my opinion that the reason the ravenous bugblatter beast of traal is so fearsome is not because it's so fierce (although doubtless it is), but because it takes so long to pronounce (this has actually been adapted by some of the more intelligent monsters, especially demons who tend to chose their names so that it takes a severe throat disease to pronounce).

Do note the qualification, however. A monster can be fast and dangerous and still have a long name due to not being explosively aggressive. Count Vladimir Dracula can get away with it because he is more likely to circle his victims (both metaphorically as physically) a while before striking (also, he tends to attack his victims when they’re alone, which makes the whole pointing bit silly at best).

Note also that length is not the only way to fail the point-and-run criterion. Take the popular name 'shadows' which occurs frequently both in fantasy as science fiction. Despite being quite short it fails the criterion because any time somebody points at a dark corner, shouts "Shadows!" and runs off, his companions are more likely to question his sanity/sobriety than run away themselves.


True-ChaosSo as Mithandir you are miss named? Cause I know of more than one DnD player that points at you and runs in terror :P
MithandirI'm perfectly named ... for my purposes :)
RemmonHe's not explosively aggressive. You can see him slowly warming up, boiling, reaching explosive potential.

And then do nothing for a while, so that he explodes when you last expect it.
Adaewait. Have you always been Mithandir and not Mithrandir? or is your name misspelled?
Shadow PhoenixHeh- this reminds me of the cat-naming rules in [i]The Unadulterated Cat[/i]. What's the rationalization for the long names of basilisks (Evil lizard-snake things that can kill you with a look), cockatrices (Half basilisk, half rooster, all mean), and amphipteres (flying snakes)? Whatever the case is, this is still on my list of things that all prospective fantasy authors should be required to read. That way we don't end up with such poetic, but useless, monster names as, and I quote, "Maimalodalu!" Of course, those guys weren't evil, but still... And I digress. Shadow Phoenix is shutting up now. :P