Judging a Book by Its Name: 10 Common Trends in Fantasy Titles

Title Trends and Fonts (Orbit 2009)

Chart showing most frequent fantasy book titles and fonts in 2009, Orbit Books, http://www.orbitbooks.net/2010/08/19/the-chart-of-fantasy-art-part-4-title-trends/

People often talk about how difficult cover designs are to get right, and the role they play in selling books. Titles – the things plastered all over those covers – are a less frequent topic of discussion.

Given how responsive we are to images and colours, covers probably are more important. Still, if you’re online, or talking to other book lovers, sometimes the title is the only thing you see or hear.

In the fantasy genre, a title often clues you in to the fact that a book actually is a fantasy novel. Truth be told, some of the elements of fantasy titles are so predictable that this random fantasy novel title generator works pretty well.

So for some fun I decided to examine a few common trends in fantasy titling:

1. The “Of” or “Of the” Phenomenon

This seems to be the most common feature in an epic or high fantasy title. Saying “the something of the something”, particularly if those somethings sound magical or grand, is a sure fire sign that you’re in the realm of fantasy:

  • The Tower of the Ravens
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Return of the King
  • The Eye of the World
  • The Lady of the Sorrows
  • The Name of the Wind
  • Daughter of the Forest

This also extends to more simple “of” constructions:

  • The Sword of Shannara
  • A Song of Ice and Fire
  • A Game of Thrones
  • The Mists of Avalon
  • The Tombs of Atuan
  • A Wizard of Earthsea

2. Naming Magical Objects or Places

The naming of magical objects, particularly weapons, is also a common feature of both high and low fantasy titles:

  • The Amber Spyglass
  • The Subtle Knife
  • The Stone Key
  • The Sword of Shannara
  • Ship of Magic
  • The Great Book of Amber
  • The Silver Chair
  • The Amulet of Samarkand
  • The Diamond Throne

As is the use of places or landscape features that have strong fantasy associations (e.g castles, towers, tombs):

  • The Mists of Avalon
  • The Tombs of Atuan
  • The Tower of the Ravens
  • Howl’s Moving Castle
  • The Keeping Place
  • The Crystal Cave
  • Mythago Wood
  • City of Bones
  • Perdido Street Station

3. One-Word Emotive Titles

This is more the domain of paranormal romances, particularly young adult ones. Many use only one word for the title: often an adjective, or two words joined together to create a new word. Because it’s paranormal romance, these one-word titles often relate to blood, vampires, angels, demons, magic, night, passion, and love:

  • Need
  • Embrace
  • Fallen
  • Marked
  • Evermore
  • Bitten
  • Tainted
  • Twilight
  • Shiver
  • Splintered
  • Storm
  • Beastly

This does happen in other fantasy sub-genres too (e.g. urban fantasy and epic fantasy):

  • Fire
  • Moonheart
  • Mistborn
  • Hounded
  • Stardust

4. Character (+ Event/Place/Thing)

These ones seem most common in children’s fantasy or YA fantasy, where the title is either just the character’s name, or the character’s name plus some new element for each book in a series.

  • Harry Potter and the… [Philospher’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban, etc.]
  • Artemis Fowl: … [The Arctic Incident, The Eternity Code, The Opal Deception etc.]
  • Alanna: The First Adventure
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Peter Pan
  • Coraline
  • Sabriel

5. Royalty

Across all fantasy, there’s an undeniable and pervasive focus on royalty:

  • The Princess Bride
  • The Way of Kings
  • Prince Caspian
  • The Crown Conspiracy
  • A Game of Thrones
  • The Return of the King
  • Arrows of the Queen
  • The Iron King
  • Princess Academy

6. Magical Talents and Professions

There’s also an understandable tendency to focus on a character’s profession or magical talent:

  • Magician
  • Assassin’s Apprentice
  • Warbreaker
  • The Riddle-Master of Hed
  • Green Rider
  • The Gunslinger
  • The Lightning Thief
  • The Dragonriders of Pern

7. Relatives of Important People or Things

This is a somewhat odd tendency to mention relatives or family connections. In these a character is not defined by who they are but rather who they are related to:

  • The Magician’s Nephew
  • Seventh Son
  • Red-headed Stepchild
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife
  • Sister Mine

This is most pronounced in an obsession with daughters (the list below barely scrapes the surface of daughter-related titles):

  • Daughter of the Forest
  • Daughter of the Empire
  • Daughter of the Blood
  • Midnight’s Daughter
  • The Iron Daughter
  • The Storyteller’s Daughter

8. Titles That Mess With Logic

Titles that seem illogical or impossible, or use oxymorons, are also a frequent occurrence in fantasy. These are often used for time travel novels (where the title contains a paradox or illogical statement to do with time), or horror/gothic/zombie novels (where the title alludes to things being dead but not dead). Actually these ones are some of my favourites, because if done well, they can be quite intriguing and epic:

  • The Neverending Story
  • The Once and Future King
  • The Book of Lost Things
  • Neverwhere
  • Dead Until Dark
  • The Living Dead
  • Back to the Future (okay that’s a film, and a sci-fi, but I had to include it. It’s a classic!)
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog
  • The End of Eternity
  • The Man Who Folded Himself

Of course, the use of oxymoronic titles extends far beyond fantasy books: http://www.drmardy.com/oxymoronica/titles.shtml

9. Puns and References

There are quite a few fantasy novels that use puns and/or references in titles. More often than not, these are novels that draw on fairy tales, though puns also seem to be popular in comic, zombie and YA fantasy titles:

  • Cry Wolf
  • Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
  • Ever After
  • Cinder
  • Mirror Mirror
  • Fairest
  • Glass Houses
  • Dead Witch Walking
  • Rot and Ruin
  • Dearly Departed

10. The Last Thing

These kind of titles make me smile, because they are so very dramatic… particularly when compiled into a list:

  • The Last Battle
  • The Last Unicorn
  • The Last Olympian
  • The Last Wish
  • The Last Werewolf
  • The Last Dragonslayer
  • The Last Hero
  • The Last Guardian

Of course, this type of title isn’t reserved for fantasy. Plenty of other genres use this… The Last of the Mohicans is one that immediately comes to mind.

The Elusive Perfect Title

Coming up with a perfect title is much harder than it seems. To find something that reflects the book’s story and its genre, is intriguing, is memorable, and hasn’t been used a million times before? Not an easy task.

Personally I find coming up with titles like pulling teeth. It is always hard work, it takes a long time, and I’d rather be writing the story than titling it.

Nonetheless, I’m always fascinated by titles that really grab you and manage to stand out from the crowd. Some titles I’ve seen are so perfect, so compelling, that you wonder how the author came up with them. Or maybe it was the publisher… it’s not uncommon for the publisher to change the title of a book.

Still, if I’m ever stuck for a good title, I could always stick with the trends. If I do, I’ve already got my next one sorted:

The Last Daughter of the Forgotten Throne

It’s going to be epic. Get it at your local bookstore, 30th February, 2015 😉

______

Follow up these title trends with a look at some typical features of fantasy book covers.

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9 thoughts on “Judging a Book by Its Name: 10 Common Trends in Fantasy Titles

  1. Excellent overview. Now all I need is to figure out if I ought to follow the trends or do something out of the ordinary. So far I have chosen titles that do not fit the patterns. Would I sell more books if I did?

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    • Yes I guess that’s the big question, what actually sells more… I’ve always leaned toward out of the ordinary titles too, but if they’re too unusual that’s a risk, I guess. I know a few books with unusual titles that I ignored the first time I saw them because I didn’t realise they were fantasy novels. That said, I eventually read them anyway due to recommendations, so I guess the titles didn’t matter too much in the end.

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  2. I was actually just thinking about the way YA stories seem to have dramatic, one-word titles! Maybe younger age groups — or adults looking for a comfort-food read — find a punchy, simple title more appealing? Whatever the reason, it’s prompting me to re-word the title of my WIP adult novel.

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    • Yes those short YA titles are quite dramatic… and they seem to work well on the covers too. What I find hard is coming up with a title like that that hasn’t already been done to death! I tried it once and every single (reasonable) thing I typed into Amazon brought up multiple books with the exact same title. Guess if you want to be different now you either have to find a really unusual adjective or just make up your own word.

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  3. I love titles of all kinds – not just fantasy titles. However, some of my favorites do turn out to be from fantasies; such as, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I’m just realizing as I typed that, that I like long titles – and, of course, the coupling of seemingly unrelated words or things. As I think of recent titles I’ve read, I think of: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (which is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time) – also In the Garden of Beasts (which turns out to be a translation of “Animal Garden” – meaning “Zoo” – correct me if I’m wrong!), which is the tale of the experiences of the American Ambassador and his family in Germany in 1939, just as Hitler was gaining power. Whenever I hear an apt phrase or pun or clever saying, I often think, “Oh, wouldn’t that be a good title for a book!” Somehow, though, I never seem to write said book!!

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  4. Always interesting to see where conventions are going.

    One note: The Once and Future King doesn’t mess with logic at all. It means he used to be king, and will be king again at some point, but isn’t right now. Why isn’t he king right now? There’s a question that sucks you in right away.

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    • Good point about The Once and Future King! I think because the meaning didn’t fit with my understanding of the Arthurian legend (which I admit is rudimentary) I saw it as being a little illogical. Does it allude to the fact Merlyn believes Arthur will rise again in future?

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  5. Pingback: On [ Fantasy ] Titles – Olive | Olive K. Aristen

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