The Naming Game

I suppose the thing I love most about writing is creating the characters. With every character, I have the chance to explore the inner workings of the human mind as I understand it, to create my own imaginary heroes and friends, and to imagine what life might be like for every character I create. It’s the same reason I have over a dozen created characters on Skyrim (a videogame, for those of you who might not be familiar with the title), too. But every created character needs a name, and I have, over the last few years, been thoroughly surprised by the number of people I have met who find this process to be extremely difficult.

The topic came up yesterday during Rough Writers. For those of you familiar with my blog, you’ll remember that my club and I have been working on a joint project, and recently we have begun to write the first stories based in our world, called Cartref. The majority of the races we have created so far in our world use words based off of real languages. Two of these races use our own variant form of Irish Gaelic. I am notoriously picky when it comes to character names (especially when it comes to Irish, because I’ve always been proud of my Scotch-Irish heritage), so the first of the stories I read based on one of these two races, I will admit, made me cringe just a bit because the names were so gratingly not Gaelic. Last night we read a manuscript based on the second of the two races. This time I had a different sort of comment to make.

The character’s name was Ailbho. It’s a decidedly Gaelic sounding name, so that wasn’t a concern. But there was a problem: I wasn’t certain as to how it ought to be pronounced and, I soon discovered, the author wasn’t entirely certain either. I have an advantage over most readers in that I am familiar with Irish Gaelic. I could guess at the pronunciation, but I knew that if I was having trouble, other people would, too.

In an attempt to avoid falling into the litany of cliches known to fantasy, I have spent hours on end pouring over lists of most hated fantasy cliches. For those of you planning on writing fantasy, I highly recommend at least looking at one or two of those lists. And because of the time I have spent doing that, there was one that really stuck in my mind: people hate unpronounceable names. On obsidianbookshelf.com’s page entitled “Everyone’s Most Hated Fantasy Cliches,” one person wrote, “If I pick up a fantasy book, and I can’t pronounce the names in the blurb without getting a headache, it’s back on the shelf for that book. Meh.” I pointed out this concern to my fellow club member, and the discussion soon turned to the naming of characters. That’s when I decided to write this blog.

Every author has their own way of naming their characters, but I do have some suggestions that have helped me over the years that I’ve spent learning how to write properly.

1. Name Lists

My number one source for character names has, for many years, been a website called babynamesworld.com. The format of the website has changed since I first began using it, making it much more confusing for me to navigate, but the concept stays the same. Name lists are a writer’s best friend. Well…one of them. I don’t know anyone who knows every name that has ever existed over the course of time and, though I can’t say the name lists are all-inclusive either, they do contain names that you may like but not be familiar with. Very few of my own characters were named without my looking at a name list. This becomes particularly useful when you’re going for a certain feel in your story. For instance, in my Star Series, which could best be described as medieval fantasy, I heavily referenced lists of Gaelic and Germanic names for a large portion of my character and place names. Many of these characters also have names that allude to something about their personality, their appearance, or their race. For instance, the chief/king of the forest elves in the Star Series is named Rolf, a Germanic name meaning “famous wolf,” as the forest elf realm of Alfedan is the home of the talking wolves.

2. Make it Up

Though most of my characters are named using lists, some of them have gotten names via a little creativity. The names of the characters in Prism World were entirely the result of my own imagination. In regards to the Phantoms, that isn’t necessarily surprising. They are, after all, named after aspects of their personalities and craft. Thus, the fast-moving, revolver-wielding protagonist is named Lightning; her dagger-wielding antagonist is named Blade; and her soft-hearted mother is named Mercy. But there have been other stories I have written where character names were even more uniquely chosen. In an old story I never finished, entitled Wolves of Archrys, the main characters, magic-wielding wolves, were named not by logic or by name lists but, rather, by an atlas. In this case, I randomly pointed to places on a given page of an atlas and laced together the first and last parts of location names until I got character names I liked. Thus, I had characters with more or less unusual names such as Rewcoln, Arion, Vanston, and Balscan. Whether that turned out well or not, though, I think I’ll let you decide. (I am, after all, rather biased on that score.)

3. Reference Other Stories

I have always been told that a good writer is a good reader. Not sure where that puts me, since I’m proud of myself when I get through three full books a year, but the concept remains the same. Just as one can become familiar with plots and mechanics through reading, one can also gain name inspiration by doing so, too. This doesn’t apply only to books. Movies, videogames, songs, poems…they can all become fodder for names. During the initial work I did on Prism World, back before I decided to put the story into print, I was on something of an anime craze, namely over the anime entitled Pandora Hearts, which is a hodge-podge of elements taken from the myth about Pandora’s box and the stories of Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, among other story elements. In this anime, one of the main characters is a girl named Alice, a powerful monster of sorts who is searching for fragments of her memories which are scattered through the world. I was fascinated by the character and, subsequently, her name as well. She is strong, impetuous, bossy, and opinionated, and though I didn’t think much of it at the time, I know that my impression of this character is what influenced my portrayal of Alice Lee in Prism World.

4. Do a Little Research

This one isn’t generally as fun, but it can help quite a bit if you run out of ideas. This is particularly the case when it comes to naming locations in a story, but can also help with character names, too. This concept goes along with the creativity suggestion above, actually, but includes a little more method and a little less random pointing at atlas pages. For an example of this, I would have to go back to the Star Series. In the series the mountain range that encompasses Alfedan and Ardenia is called the Harzian Mountains. This comes from the real life Harz, the tallest mountain range in northern Germany. Reality works. Even in fantasy.

Of course, there are always potential issues as well. Here are some things you might consider avoiding.

1. Unpronounceable Names

The very word gives me a headache. In order to create an effective story, it’s always a good idea to have characters whose names are familiar enough that the reader can feel familiar and attached to them. Not to say that the names can’t be exotic, but they at least need to be pronounceable.

2. Dashes and Apostrophes

Please, please, please. On behalf of the fantasy community, please avoid names with apostrophes and dashes. Or, at least, use them sparingly. If you look around in real life, names with apostrophes and dashes are actually rather few and far between. Yet, for some reason, a large percentage of fantasy writers have somehow come to the conclusion that every other name needs to look like a kindergartener got a hold of a notebook and started writing random letters and symbols in haphazard orders. Ok, so maybe I’m being dramatic, but still…

3. Keep it in Context

Honestly, if you have a race whose cities, race name, and social organization are already named using a real life language, it stands to reason that you might want to continue using that language to name your characters, too. You wouldn’t want a character from a city called Erin (Ireland) to be named Alibaba. Well, maybe you would, but it doesn’t make much sense to me. Unless you’re going for a comic effect. That might work.

4. This isn’t a Rhyming Game

I’m actually a little ambiguous on this one, but I thought I might as well put it here anyway. My mentor, Glen Robinson, has always sort of preached the mantra, “Don’t have two main characters with names that start with the same letter. It confuses the reader.” To a certain extent, I agree with him. It’s just as confusing in real life. For instance, I have a friend named Chelsey and a friend named Kelsey. You can imagine what kind of confusion occurs when I start talking about one or both of them. Similar sounding names can get confusing, but I’m not sure I agree with Dr. Robinson when he says not to use names that start with the same letter. The letter, in and of itself, doesn’t confuse me. Thus, I can have character combinations such as Razi and Rayne and still know exactly which character is which. And especially when you get to stories such as the ones I write with ensemble “casts,” where you can easily have four, five, six main characters and just as many points of view. Perhaps that is a problem in and of itself, but that’s for another time.

In the end, character naming still remains largely a matter of personal taste, but if one is writing for an audience, it does require a measure of sacrifice on the part of the author in order to accommodate the needs of the readers. My best advice on that score is to develop a network of readers who will give you feedback. The more people who comment on an issue, the more likely it is to become a big problem later on.

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