Aug 2, 2012

Should You Name All Your Aliens 'Billy'? And Other Crimes Against Writing

A quick way to come up with exotic/alien names:

There is none. But there is a simple method. Read on.

Maybe you’re the sort of person who’d like to call an alien character EeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO, or something of the sort. Well, I won’t stop you, but consider this:

1. Nobody knows how to pronounce EeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO.

Assuming your book/story is successful, you’ll spend the rest of your life explaining to people that,

a)      to get the Eeeee bit right, you have to make like a horny dolphin (or something)
b)      RRRR sounds like a Scotsman having a stroke,
c)       aaaarrr approaches the grating wail of a police siren, and
d)      OOOO must be pronounced as if you were trying to swallow a live conger eel


And I haven’t even touched the issue of capitalization. Better not go there. 

2. It’ll be hard to keep track of all the Eeeees, RRRRs, aaaarrrs and OOOOs.

Obviously you could just type ERO all the way through to the end of your manuscript, and replace all the EROs with EeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO when you’re done. (I can’t put my finger on the reason why, but this EeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO dude is growing on me.)

But that’s placing too much faith in technology. If the word ‘hero’ occurs at any point in your text, it’ll be turned into hEeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO. So, best avoid the words hero, zero, and erotic.

Can you keep all of that in your brain? I can’t. I’d slip and I know it.

3. EeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO probably speaks an exotic language like OghNwOghNVIIohgn.

In all likelihood, he, she, or it finds human language difficult and keeps importing OghNwOghNVIIohgn words into Basic Normal Space Standard I (aka English), so that most conversations aboard the Starship Dynamica go something like this:


Stapleton, do you know where my kwagnzother is?

Space Captain Stapleton:

Your what?


My kwagnzother. You know, the thing to scrape my f’noo’galRRAAA.

Space Captain Stapleton:

Uh, I haven’t seen it.

(widening its qanboozers and flaring its vwonk’o’jiiii):

You’re sitting on it!

Space Captain Stapleton:

Oh, shit. What do I do now?


Don’t move. If you try to stand up, it’ll want to kroinkle your goinglers.

Space Captain Stapleton 
(sweating, holding very still):

By ‘goinglers,’ you mean my…


That fleshy appendage between your locomotive limbs.

So how do you come up with convincing names for aliens?
(Without going overboard, that is)

Most names mean something, even if that meaning is now buried deep. Still, you can draw inspiration from the onomastic knowledge we have preserved. A quick online search yields page after page of first & family names, be they Native American, Serbian, Polish or Georgian — I could list dozens of nationalities here. You get the idea.

There is a trick to it, after all

Because names have meanings, and meaning is drawn from experience, names reflect

a)      the environment in which they exist or the time they were created. Remember the Israeli couple that named their daughter ‘Like’?
b)      unchanging circumstances that define us, the human collective. Names like Robert (‘fame-bright’), Philip (‘friend to horses’) or Mary/Maria/Marie/Mari (‘mother-queen’) are still around. There are more beautiful examples, like the Yoruba name Ayodele, ‘joy has come home.’ Or Natsuko (Japanese), which combines ‘summer’ and ‘child.’

So if you’re struggling to name your aliens, think about the origin and history of their species, as well as the current situation on their world.

I’ve been playing a game called Torchlight and all the dungeon minibosses (goblins, giant spiders, walking trees) have names like Facekicker the Damned and Eyereaper the Gluttonous. It’s their job to mash you to a pulp, so those monikers seem rather appropriate.

What you call yourself is one of the strongest connections between you and the world you live in. I’m certain that EeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO is a productive member of society on the planet uUU, and a kind parent to its osmotic spawn, EeeeeYu, TreeeeYu, and Blort. On Earth, our friend finds it hard to introduce itself without setting the air on fire and choking people to death because they mispronounce EeeeeRRRRaaaarrrOOOO in terribly offensive ways.

They say you should include pictures in your blog
posts, so here's another one. 
Don’t make an alien too alien unless the story is about its profound and undeniable difference. About the gap that separates us from them. Begin by giving the alien a name people can pronounce — your readers will thank you.

Do that, or break all the rules and surprise us. Surprise yourself. I won’t send the kwagnzother after you.  


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