Choosing a Fantasy Title

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Mistakes to Avoid When Choosing a Fantasy Title

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Making up a title for anything can be a daunting task.  Plus, if you're publishing with a traditional publisher, you'll probably get your working title changed by your editor anyway.  Don't worry about that.  Avoid the following pitfalls, and create a good working title that you can pitch to an agent or editor.  If you're trying out self-publishing, you can keep that good title and no one is going to twist your arm over it.

Avoid Over-Used Words.
Unfortunately, a lot of terrific words have been badly overused by fantasy writers in the last few decades – to the point where they can make a title sound worn-out and colorless.  No one can blame the established authors who inadvertently ran these words into the ground:  their titles were invariably chosen by their editors or by marketing committees within traditional publishing firms.

Have a look at the following words:   

Bane, Barbarian, Bard, Battle, Book, Chaos, Crown, Crystal, Dark, Darkness, Demon, Doom, Dragon, Elf, Elven, Enchanter, Exile, Faery, Fairy, Fellowship, Fire, Fortress, Gate, Guard, Halfling, Heart, King, Knight, Land, Legend, Light, Lord, Lore, Mage, Magic, Moon, Night, Oath, Oathbound, Orphan, Palace, Path, Pawn, Prince, Princess, Prophecy, Quest, Queen, Raven, Rising, Saga, Sea, Seer, Serpent, Shadow, Siege, Song, Sorcerer, Sorceress, Spell, Star, Stone, Storm, Sundering, Sword, Swordsman, Tale, Talisman, Temple, Throne, Tower, Unicorn, Voyage, War, Warlord, Warrior, Wielding, Wielder, Witch, Wolf, and you can probably think of even more worn-out words that I've missed.

Combine some and see how stale and meaningless they sound as titles:  Book of Chaos, Barbarian's Crown, Elven Darkness, Dragon Enchanter, Crystal Fortress, and Legend of the Halfling King.  Et cetera.  I'm not claiming that these words are off-limits for fantasy titles:  rather, I'd urge you to use them cautiously with full awareness of their borderline cliché status.  Try to make them vivid.  For example, if you must use a tired word like "palace" in your title, make it memorable:  Dinner at Deviant's Palace by Tim Powers.

Avoid Generic Adjective-Noun Titles.
These are titles that sound pretty but don't convey much:  The White Mountains, The Black Forest, and The Deep Blue Sea. For example, in the Philip Pullman series His Dark Materials, the first book's title doesn't do much for me:  The Golden Compass.  But the second book has a great title, The Subtle Knife, and it's the quirky adjective "subtle" that does the trick.  I'm not quite sure what The Subtle Knife is supposed to convey, but it makes me stop and try to figure it out.  For that reason, it's memorable. 

And what about that series title, His Dark Materials?  I like it.  The overused word "Dark" can go a long way if you combine it with "His" which suggests a character and is therefore more interesting than some of the more abstract fantasy titles.  Plus "Materials" is an unusual, almost technical, word that you don't often find in fantasy titles.  It's just vague enough to be interesting:  what would be classified as "materials" in this story?

Avoid Proper Names.
Proper names (if they're short and pronounceable) can work fine for series titles (see below).  But I find it a huge waste to give a stand-alone novel a made-up name like Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake or The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien or Perelandra by C. S. Lewis.  Proper names are so meaningless!  They convey nothing except that the book might be a fantasy and might be a bit old-fashioned.  This connotation extends to titles like "The Castle of Proper-Name" and "The Knight [Wizard, Prince, Princess, Scullery Maid, Halfling, et cetera] of Proper-Name." Even the Harry Potter books were not just called Harry Potter 1, Harry Potter 2, and Harry Potter 3. Each title had a meaningful addition such as ...and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Series Title versus Stand-Alone Book Titles. 

A lot of fantasy novels are not stand-alone books, but installments within a series.  What will you call your series?  This can be a hard choice because you may have only finished writing Book 1 and how can you predict what themes may surface by Book 12? 

Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I think that series titles are not as important as the titles of stand-alone novels.  If a reader can't remember the series title, he'll probably just find the books by searching on the author's name.  For this reason, I'm not against using a proper name like "Narnia" for a series title as long as it looks easily pronounceable:  The Narnia series.  Yes, I would have advised C. S. Lewis to call it "the Narnia Series" and not "The Chronicles of Narnia."

Keep the series title extremely short and extremely obvious.  Your readers are going to have enough to remember with the series title, the titles of the books in the series, and your author name.  Don't tax their patience by cobbling together ornate titles to convey medieval grandeur.  You can save the grandeur for your jacket copy or first page!

Avoid Needless Complexity and Irrelevance. Most epic fantasy series have majestic-sounding titles such as The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan.  I like "Wheel of Time" as a series title because it contains only two simple nouns and the concept of vast repeating cycles is intrinsic to its story.  I can't overemphasize the importance of succinct titles that are relevant.  This may sound too obvious for words, but I'm now going to risk getting carloads of hate mail with the following examples that I think, with all due respect, could have been improved upon:

A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.  This series title introduces the concepts of singing, ice, and fire.  The Ice may refer to the ice-wall protecting the northern border of Westeros.  Perhaps the Fire refers to the dragons associated with the Daenerys Targaryen character. 

None of this is so intrinsic to the series that it's worth forcing the reader to remember the correct terms in the correct order.  I would have called it The Westeros series.  This is short, pronounceable, and since it refers to the location of the action, it's relevant.  Is all this persnickety on my part?  Well, probably.  I'd be the first to admit it.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series by Tad Williams.  I find this series title even harder to remember than the Martin example above.  I'd love to suggest something more reasonable, but I haven't yet read this particular series.  I think the three words name three objects of power that the characters must acquire.  It helps that the author listed the words alphabetically!  But it still sounds too wordy and abstract for me to remember for long.

A lot of you fantasy fans may be wondering how I can disregard the importance of picking a heroic-sounding series title that suggests sagas, legend, and chivalry.  Good point.  But I stand by my preferences.  Since I'm strongly influenced the mystery/thriller genre with its emphasis on streamlined action, some of my opinions about fantasy fiction may be unconventional.

Avoid Problems Associated with Character Names.  Urban fantasy series often follow the mystery genre convention of taking the main character's name:  for example, The Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton and The Rachel Morgan series by Kim Harrison.  Possible pitfalls? 

One, your character's name might be so common as to make your series title completely unmemorable.  Two, you might introduce a second viewpoint and then risk having your series awkwardly labeled after both characters.  An example from the mystery genre:  The Joe Leaphorn / Jim Chee series by Tony Hillerman.

Some urban fantasy series titles I like:  The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.  The Weather Warden series by Rachel Caine.  Both of these titles are short, memorable, relevant, and intriguing.  The titles also would remain unaffected if the authors wanted to introduce other character viewpoints.

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