Building a cohesive epic fantasy universe is tricky stuff, and perhaps nothing is trickier than coming up with character names that are suitably exotic without crossing over into the ridiculous. And while we certainly trust authors—who undoubtedly have reams of historical and linguistic documentation to justify their naming schemes—sometimes the result is a book in which a warrior named Uther Ubertonia is fighting an evil black dragon side by side with… someone named Frank Roberts. For contemporary and portal fantasy novels, this is entirely understandable, but sometimes the juxtaposition of capital-F Fantasy Names with ones that might as easily belong to your next-door neighbor can be unintentionally amusing.
John Smith in Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde
Jasper Fforde has so much fun with the names in his Thursday Next novels that even the few common names that pop up are less incongruous than purposefully jarring. In the second book of a series where lampshading the bizarre names is already a regular joke, the gloriously named Thursday—who is surrounded by characters with names like Archeron Hades, Yorrick Kane, and Victor Analogy—meets a man named… John Smith. She notes that she finds it an “unusual name.”
Harry Strickland in A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
Martin has legitimately put more thought into his character names than many writers put into entire novels. He follows a fairly logical system for choosing names, and largely sticks to names that will be more familiar and easier to pronounce for native English-speaking readers. Many of the names used in Westeros, for example, are taken from European sources and run through a creative spelling algorithm; the resultant names are fairly close to ones popular in the U.K. and U.S., but different enough to appear exotic. Still, we also have main characters named Tyrion, Cersei, and Daenerys alongside one named Jon. The most egregious example of this in the whole series is Ser Harry Strickland, whose name doesn’t really seem to fit the character of a mercenary general. You wouldn’t be surprised if your accountant was named Harry Strickland—which perhaps makes this one genius, because in a way, that’s essentially the duty Harry performs as head of the sellswords in the Golden Company.
Eric in Eric, by Terry Pratchett
Pratchett’s Discworld books offer brilliant deconstructions of fantasy tropes and are definitely intended to be hilarious, so it’s little wonder the fantasy names themselves are kind of funny—Rincewind, for example, is just an inherently amusing moniker. But it really pops when Rincewind himself is summoned by a demonologist named… Eric, who demands that the incompetent wizard grant him three pretty huge wishes (ruling the world, meeting the most beautiful woman ever, immortality—you know, standard wish stuff). Eventually Eric even gets his own self-titled book; immortality indeed.
Tom, Bert, and Bill in The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Look, no one—no one—put more work into their worldbuilding than Tolkien. The stories behind even the names you know by heart are often deeper than you might think—for example, “Frodo Baggins” is not the hobbit’s actual name, but a translation of his name into common speech (a.k.a. Westron). And Tolkien didn’t just invent cool-sounding names, he invented entire cultures to go with them, history and language and more; the names he chooses definitely mean something. But there are also characters named Tom, and Bert, and William—you might know them better as the three trolls who turn to stone in The Hobbit. Of course, there is also everyone’s favorite nature-lover, Tom Bombadill. (Do you suppose anyone ever called him Tommy?)
Everyone in The Sword of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
Goodkind’s epic series is set in a culturally-mixed world, so having a variety of names isn’t surprising in a worldbuilding sense, but it can be a bit disorienting to read about characters named George and Michael adventuring alongside one Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander. What makes it even more noticeable is the way names aren’t tied in any apparent way to geography or culture—no matter where you are in the fictional world, you are just as likely to meet a George as a Demmin or a Kadar.
Kevin Landwaster in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson
On the one hand, this is a portal fantasy, so it’s totally excusable when people named Tom and Linden show up in a world where everyone else is named Saltheart Foamfollower. On the other hand, one of the legendary figures of the Land’s history is named Kevin, and he’s a real “we need to talk about Kevin” kind of Kevin, as he spoke the Ritual of Desecration in a despairing gambit to defeat the series’ Big bad, Lord Foul. Come to think of it, we also need to talk about Lord Foul, don’t we? I mean, a raver—an immortal force of evil with the super-cool name Samadhi Sheol—serves someone named Lord Foul? Though to be fair, Foul has alternate names, but none of them are much cooler, unless “Fangthane” does it for you. Which it should not.
Paul Atreides in Dune, by Frank Herbert
If you squint, there seems to be a rhyme and a reason to Herbert’s naming schemes, which features a lot of Arabic influence as well as celestial names. But mixed in with some of these clearly historically drawn or fanciful and fantastical names are a lot of common Eurocentric ones: Paul, Miles, Duncan. There’s some attempt at explaining this (the corruption of names over time, etc.), but the fact is, you’re still going to come across paragraphs in which someone named Paul is chatting with someone named Stilgar Ben Fifrawi.
Luke Skywalker in Star Wars
For the most part, the Star Wars universe does a great job of giving characters fun names that evoke their personalities and are pretty cool without crossing into parody (Elan Sleezebaggano aside). Han Solo? Great name! Lando Calrissian? Greater name. Darth Vader? Badass name. Darth Sidious? Badderass name. And then there’s… Luke. Sure, Skywalker’s a great name. A bit grandiose, but still cool (though it has nothing on the original “Starkiller”). Luke, on the other hand? Not exactly a name that evokes thoughts of a prophesied savior of the galaxy, is it?
Dennis Cranmer in The Last Wish, by Andrzej Sapkowski
The Witcher series is crammed with names whose pronunciation you can but guess at, starting with the main character, Geralt of Rivia, and running through a long list that includes solid gold fantasy gems like Nadir, Velerad, Calanthe, and Segelin. And then there’s the dwarf Dennis Cranmer. To paraphrase When Harry Met Sally, a Dennis cannot be a fierce dwarf. If you need a root canal, Dennis is your man, but axe-fightin’ and evil-defeatin’ are not Dennis’ strong suit.
What’s your favorite not-all-that-fantastical fantasy name?