The Bob the Barbarian Conundrum

You’re reading a fantasy novel with weird names full of apostrophes in a fantastic setting. And then comes the barbarian, named Bob. Like he’s from the bar next door or the accountant at the office. A lot of people have complained about that over the years, and it’s often seen as a sign of a newbie writer.

Now, fine, I’ve been writing in unpublished obscurity but I’ve read a lot of books, not least about the ideas, skills and approaches to writing stories. And I’ve been doing that (with a good number of loooooong breaks) most of my life. I’d like to avoid rookie mistakes, especially the ones I notice myself.

And yet the hero of my fantasy series is named Cornell. True, that’s not as familiar a name as Bob but it’s hardly unknown. (Oh, and one of his friends is called Gabe. Who is a barbarian. That one I rationalize as a coincidence. Right. That, uhm, works.) I’ve thought a lot about changing the names here to something more fantasy-like, but in the end, they’ve grown too familiar to me over the years.

They aren’t even my idea, not originally. Cornell, Gabe, Barandas and Flink were characters in a D&D role-playing game my best buddy Chris conducted in the early 2000s. He wanted to drag me into his group and kept telling stories about the characters’ exploits. At the time, we were also plotting stories for me to write together. One thing came to another, and we decided to transplant the characters to an original setting, adapt their backstories and craft something new. We got the approval for using the names by the original players of Gabe and Barandas (Chris was Cornell and Flink).

Then I started writing, making the characters my own (guided by what Chris thought they should be like) and drafting all-new tales about the idjits— uh, heroes. There’s little left of the original D&D characters, as far as I can tell. The names stuck, though. Chris kept telling me, “I came up with the name on my own! I’d never heard of that name in the real world!” (Which is believable, given that he’s German and not too deeply familiar with, say, Cornell University or any of the people with that name.)

Oof. Rookie fantasy mistake, I embrace you. Grmblefxjh…

But I do have an in-universe explanation. Sort of. It’s more of a pan-universal thing, and one day, maybe, I’ll actually put it in writing. The name Cornell is a Cornish adaptation of the Latin name Cornelius. And without actually looking for a solution to the Bob the Barbarian conundrum, when world-building, I wanted to use the trope of a Roman legion transplanted to a fantasy world. (Yes, stolen from Harry Turtledove’s wonderful Videssos cycle. Uhm, “acquired.” Hommage?) Actually, that event was far in the past of the world of Cornell, and the Romans had set up their own nation, New Rome. Rather than the expansive empire of our reality, the New Romans keep to themselves for the most part in their swampy, murky homeland where the morning mists make the world look blue. Here, I picked up on something I read about the real-world Romans describing Germany like that, calling it the blue country. Accordingly, the outside world doesn’t speak of Romans or New Rome but only of the Blue Land.

Still, that means that some of their names will have drifted out of the Blue Land and gotten mangled over time, much like happened in our Cornwall a long time ago. And so, Cornelius has become Cornell in the world of Gushémal, too. There we go! Bob the Barbarian makes sense!

… … … He, uhm, does, doesn’t he?

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