Words about worlds

Home-baked Roots: Names in the Unseelie Saga

by | Apr 10, 2023 | Cypher, Games, Worldbuilding | 0 comments

An irregular blue-white iceberg floats in the chilly waters off Argentina.  Snow-brushed mountains appear in the background. The lightly rippling ocean waters reflect the clear blue sky above in this bright image.

Glacial iceberg in Argentina, CC BY 2.0 by Ilya Haykinson

Note: I published this article a little early, as I will be away from my keyboard on Wednesday.

This started out as a post about names. Like a lot of my writing, my intention has twisted in my grip and the result is that this is now a post about some of the thinking that went into the Unseelie Saga, and specifically about the naming practices I’m using in the stories.

Names are like icebergs: they are sharp, clear, and have so much going on under the rippling surface. Also, if you are like me, they pose a serious hazard to the smooth progress of your story. I’ve learned a variety of techniques for managing names. For the Unseelie Saga, I wanted to evoke a sense of a developed cultural background through somewhat consistent naming practices. To decide where to begin defining those practices, I went back to the beginnings of the stories.

For me, this set of stories has its roots in my grandmother’s kitchen. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in my grandmother’s kitchen. She had a huge fund of stories: stories of her life and relatives’ lives, stories she heard from neighbors growing up sixty years before and from her children the day before I came over. Her own mother was born in Ireland and my grandmother grew up with French and Irish relatives and with neighbors from several cultures. On this particular day, my grandmother was baking and telling stories. She began doing a spirited imitation of the Irish brogue of one of her childhood neighbors, a woman my grandmother was fond of. I remember she stopped in mid-story to try to sing the tune of an Irish lullaby this neighbor used to sing. My grandmother was quite the singer but she couldn’t quite remember how the tune went. Eventually, she gave up and wandered back to the story.

I was quite young but I already knew that memory was fickle, so once or twice, I tried to get my grandmother to sing it again but I never had the luck. My sister was great at coaxing my grandmother (she spent even more time in that kitchen than I did and could coax a hedgehog out of its prickles), so she may have heard it complete. This was sort of a private quest, so I never asked. At any rate, some years after my grandmother died, I found “Seoithín seo”. It seemed hauntingly familiar and I wondered, was that the song? I dug into its history, found that it was old enough, listened to different versions, and from there, I stopped wondering, ‘Could this be my grandmother’s song?’ I was off on a new path. My quest for that song led me to this lullaby, and from that lullaby, a story began to grow. Several stories, actually, but the Unseelie Saga starts with one of them.

When I started to write this series of adventures, I knew that I wanted the names to be informed by the Irish side of my heritage. After all, the whole thing had started in my grandmother’s kitchen. I also wanted most of the names to sound gender-neutral, at least to me. That was a challenging combination. For me, there was only one place to begin: the records provided by the Academy of St. Gabriel.

The Academy of St. Gabriel is my go-to for historically sourced names in a variety of cultures. I can not enough praise their dedication and diligence in providing names and sources for people, places, and objects across numerous eras and cultures. In this case, I went straight to Irish and Manx names (a section I have reviewed several times over the years). In among the “masculine descriptive bynames” collected from the Corpus of Electronic Texts (Ireland’s longest-running Humanities Computing project), I found a glorious name: “[of the] Wine-red Hand”.

Yes, oh, yes, please. Now there is a name for a Rival.
In my world, Rivals get capital letters. They are much more interesting to me than Villains. Rivals might be Villains, or they might be Heroes; they might be deadly foes or staunch allies or both. They challenge the PCs to do better, to go further, and occasionally give them a good target. There is endless possibility in a good Rival.

Back to the name “Wine-red Hand”. That’s “Crobderg” in Middle Irish Gaelic (circa 900-1200). Now I needed a given name. Among the given names attested back to 1224, I found “Cathal”. Absolutely this was a masculine pairing in its period. But in our world, we’re used to names crossing genders over and back, and a Cathal Crobderg could be nicknamed “Cat”, a nickname I’ve encountered in male, female, and at least one non-binary acquaintance. It’s also sharp and slightly difficult to say, a name that calls attention to itself, much like its owner. So, Cathal Crobderg the Rival became.

Yes, I am mixing our modern flexibility to naming practices with historically informed names. It’s a trick. Get a pen and join me.

Names of the Fair Folk are largely drawn from similar sources. A few, notably Bright of Beyarise, break the pattern but in a way that is meant to suggest that “Bright” is an adopted name rather than the original name of the owner. In other words, Bright has something to hide. In general, the legendary Fair Folk were given more clearly Irish names: Mael Dúin, Mór, Áine. For the younger generation, I mixed in less well-attested names and even titles instead of names: the Birch-well Knight, the Noble of Tierce. This is another trick: by using a title, I give the Players a sense of what that Fae thinks is important to them and I leave the gender and appearance of that NPC entirely in the Players’ control.

Now I’m facing a set of pre-generated PCs and wondering, what shall they be named? As with all our adventures, we encourage the Players to change the names, appearance, and background of their chosen Player Character to suit themselves. Why, then, name the PCs at all? To add an evocative note to the characters, to give the Players a starting point, and to give a little assistance to Players who struggle (as I do) with inventing names on the spot. However, I don’t want the Players to feel locked in to a single culture, so choosing names will be a bit tricky. A name like “Donn” is useful: it’s short and while it is an Irish byname, it has a familiar sound in several languages. As I write the Player Characters, I will probably aim for names of this type. One or two PCs may have titles instead of names, titles which arise from some incident in their short backstories. I will probably start with the Academy of St. Gabriel lists but I will also look at modern gender-neutral name lists and use a few other tricks – tricks which I may discuss in a follow-up post on some more general aspects of world-building through names.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *