“It gives me great pleasure, a good name. I always in writing start with a name. Give me a name and it produces a story, not the other way about normally.”
“It gives me great pleasure, a good name. I always in writing start with a name. Give me a name and it produces a story, not the other way about normally.” <– that was Tolkien. And he had a way with names, there’s no doubting it, but I wonder how reviewers would react to a fantasy book now where the main villain was called MORGOTH. It’s got heft to it, especially with the preferred pronunciation of MORRRGOTH, but how seriously would you take it?
Does it sound ridiculous? If so, does it sound ridiculous because we have seen seventy years of Tolken pastiche, or because it sounds like a request: MORE GOTH! And that’s if you’re a native English speaker with an Anglo background and some dozens of books under your belt. I’m not sure how it sounds to someone reading the Silmarillion for the first time in their teens. I’m not sure how it sounds if your introduction to mythology was more Indian-inflected than Norse or Celtic -inflected. I might have some sense of how it sounds to a Spanish or a German speaker (I probably don’t). I don’t have any idea how ‘Morgoth’ sounds when the Silmarillion has been translated into Polish, or Tagalog, or Japanese. (Feel free to weigh in below if you do).
This has been in my mind because I’ve been going through Kickstarter-backer-supplied names for Cultist Simulator.
I got two hundred and nineteen.
It’s fine. It’s actually fine. I’ve got 150+ tomes planned for the game. Another two-three dozen NPCs. I can reference people as historical characters. From experience I know maybe 80% of backers will actually supply a name. We’re past the cutoff date, I got about 170 responses, if you’re reading this and you still want to fill in the survey, chuck it in quick and I’ll make it work, but basically, yes, it’ll be 180 supplied names, I reckon.
Still a lot of names. That’s fine, though; in fact it’s good; you can never have too much inspiration. Using backer names for landmarks on Sunless Sea really helped populate the map:
But then, of course, there’s this issue.
So there’s the fun task of writing emails to customers that hit the right note between Thank You But Not Quite Our Thing and Come On Sunshine, Don’t Mess Me About. But that’s only if they’re obviously taking the piss. And what if they aren’t? What if the name doesn’t work for Cultist Simulator, or sounds great in their own language but odd in English, or looks odd to me because I’ve been staring at a spreadsheet of names for an hour and my eyes have started to cross? What if it’s a treasured forum nym they’ve been using since they were twelve?
Here’s the guidance I put on the name survey:
“It doesn’t need to be your real name! You can use a pseudonym, middle name or other alternate identity. However, Cultist Simulator is set (more or less) in the real world, and names should sound like they plausibly come from a real-world history or culture with a tradition of literacy. Ideally, they should sound like they’ve come from Europe or Asia no earlier than the sixteenth century.”
So ‘Flamedragon212’ is right out. I’m not being mean about Flamedragon212, or about anyone else, because I know that if someone has backed eight Kickstarters and clicked a link in their email on a cloudy December morning at work, they’re not going to read the small print on the questionnaire. So that’s fine; I’ve sent them a polite email and said, sorry, won’t fly, can we have something else.
But what about ‘Argentrose’? Someone chose that, mailed me to check it had gone in because it’s a name they’re attached to; and it doesn’t fit the guidelines. It sounds like a high-fantasy character, not an eighteenth-century mystic. ‘Rose Argent’ would be fine, if a little unusual, and I’ve suggested that.
‘Fine, but a little unusual’ is what you’re looking for in occult books, really. ‘Matt Nash’ and ‘Ian Thomas’ are fine, and you want some relatively straightforward names in among the rest of it. Nico van Driel, Jacob Oliver Topp-Mugglestone, Emmanuel Raveline, Jay Wigglesworth Jensen, Anaël Verdier, Lars Westergren, Niels Frederik Malskær… these are all great. The thing is, at least some of them are real names. All of them might be. I know Jay Wigglesworth Jensen is, because they mailed me when they were deciding whether to back at Stolen Name level, and asked me if their name would be okay. Niels Frederik Malskær: if your first language is English, this sounds like the earl of a haunted castle. If your first language is Danish, I’ve no idea how it sounds. Maybe super mundane, maybe super dramatic.
(My ex-wife is Croatian. When we were talking about kid names, I said we should totally call our kid Zvonimir, a Croatian name which sounds amazing if you grew up in Oxfordshire. She reacted with horror: no no, it’s an old man’s name, it sounds like Reginald or something… if you’re a Zvonimir, sorry, it’s her opinion not mine, I still think you sound great.)
Back to basics. What do I actually need in a Cultist Simulator NPC backer name? I don’t want to make an aesthetic judgement on whether it’s a good name. There are lots of good names that won’t fit. I do want something, then, that fits, that sounds like it could show up on the spine of a well-thumbed book in a library in a slightly alternate, but basically familiar, early twentieth century British city. And I don’t want to make my backers feel embarrassed if they’re not native English speakers and they’ve picked something that sounds fine to them, but doesn’t sound fine to a nerdy writer thigh-deep in invented world stuff trying to make sure all the names fit just right.
Another problem. Let’s try a quick quiz. Supplied backer name, or real-world occult pseudonym?
- ‘Frater Perdurabo’
- ‘Christian Rosenkreuz’
- ‘Hieronymus Pseudo-Hypnerotomachus’
- ‘Snow’s Keeper’
- ‘Percy Flage’
I’m going to ramble a bit about the context, to provide a spoiler space, and also because it’s interesting. Some occult or esoteric writers were poseurs and dilettantes. Some were intensely focused scholars who took their work extremely seriously. Some of them picked pseudonyms as casually as a fifteen-year-old might pick a gamertag now: they banged some syllables together and picked a sound they liked. Some of them were elaborately chosen for specific reasons (that might still fall apart under the gentle pressure of actual scholarship). Some of them use nicknames, some of them have been given identifiers by subsequent scholars, some are possibly, but not definitely, fictional: Hermes Trismegistus, Satoshi Nakamoto.
Anyway here are your answers: Amber, Hieronymus, Messana, Gwaer and Snow’s Keeper are backer-supplied names. (Hieronymus Pseudo-Hypnerotomachus, to confuse things, looks like a play on ‘pseudo-Hieronymus’, the author who was not, but was mistaken for, Hieronymus, and the work called the ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’.)
Porphyry (aka Porphyrius), Christian Rosenkreuz, Scire, Dafo, Frater Perdurabo and Percy Flage are all names that have actually been used. The last two are both Crowley, the last one Crowley in a particularly silly mood even by Crowley’s standards.
So practically anything, even something quite high-fantasy-looking, might go in as a pseudonym. But if someone thinks [not actual example] Masticus Indomitablus looks like a really cool name, and I use it as the name of a notorious charlatan who made up their name after four absinthes too many, that’s going to be unfortunate.
(Here’s another fun wrinkle! A lot of the authors who wrote in the 19th and early 20th centuries had fallen in love with Indian, Chinese, Native American or Middle Eastern philosophy and mythology and literature, and imported and mangled it in a way which would cause comment or look insensitive today. When does authenticity become authentic? Blavatasky actually wrote about the Secret Masters in Tibet in the 1880s, but this looks like nonsense sub-Orientalist cliche now. But it still has real period flavour. And there are still Theosophists in the world today who might take exception to ‘nonsense cliche’, not to mention Wiccans who might be hurt by my suggesting that a lot of Wiccan writers in the 1900s+ made up a lot of the secret texts they were supposedly quoting from. That’s another blog post for another day.)
Here’s a rule I’ve settled on. If a name looks inappropriate – not Dankmeme Swamp inappropriate, just, well-intended but it doesn’t fit the obsessively tuned setting –
if a name looks inappropriate, I’ll punch it into a search engine. If the first page of hits I get are Steam forum usernames, and it doesn’t show up elsewhere, then I’ll probably need it changed. If it turns out to be a place name, or a real-world surname, or have other interpretations, it can probably stay.
I worry way too much about this stuff. But then, worrying way too much about this stuff was what made Fallen London work, and why people can go down the delirious rabbit hole of making connections for days. Cultist Simulator is meant to be a rich, intriguing ball of yarn that you can tug on for days, or the fictional equivalent of one of those boxes in the Room games. I very much want everything to fit. So if you’ve just got an email asking you politely for an alternate name, then please, it’s not you: it’s just me being a nerd.