(This was first written in 2003, and published as a magazine column, then revised in 2011 for a simple tips handbook currently out-of-print…but I have been thinking of the issue a lot lately, and decided it was time for an update and repost.)
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.
— Romeo and Juliet
Practically anyone over the age of thirteen, and some of the younger Leonardo DiCaprio fans, recognizes the above quote. But is it true? Would Romeo be as dashing a figure if he were called “Henry”? After all, Henry was a perfectly respectable name for a hero. It was a kingly name. But it wasn’t fitting for a character wandering the Veronese streets full of puppy love over a girl.
A name is one of the most important gifts a writer bestows upon his character. It sets the tone for all other aspects of the character’s personality and there are many things to keep in mind while choosing this gift. When a character’s name doesn’t match their personality, it is like trying to wear a suit that is too small—it just doesn’t fit correctly.
What are the major considerations one must take into account when bestowing a name upon a character? First, there are the logistics of time and place. Then, there are economic status and cultural aspects. Each of these factors must be appropriate to the character and still not clash with the traits that make that character an individual. Plus, you have to keep in mind the genre you are writing within, and any conventions that are part of it.
Looking first at the time and place of your piece, it will be fairly obvious that a heroine named Tiffany will seem a little out of place in a medieval romance—unless of course she is a time traveler, but that is an entirely different kettle of fish.
Keeping these conventions satisfied is relatively easy if you are writing realistic historical or contemporary fiction. All you have to do to find a wealth of names is bear in mind your setting and make sure that your names fit into the parameters for your chosen storyline. Study books of baby names for suggestions if you become stuck. One that many people, including this author, find particularly useful because of its unusual entries is The New Age Baby Name Book by Sue Browder. Another source of contemporary names is the telephone directory appropriate to the region of your setting. The reason for the stress on “appropriate to the region” is that cultural considerations of the area might make names from your personal directory inappropriate for the setting of the story. It really does pay to research. One quick and easy research solution for those writers with web access is to take advantage of the many outstanding name sites on the Internet. Budding author Jennifer Figueroa suggests http://www.babynames.com/. Another site worth bookmarking is https://www.babble.com/baby-names/, which has large groups of names categorized by nationality, as well as lists of names in categories such as “Shakespearean baby names” and “celebrity baby names.”
In a contemporary novel, your options are not as limited as they are in a historical piece. As the world is brought closer together daily by technology, culture specific names are beginning to spread into wider use. However, it behooves the serious, and perceptive, writer to pay attention to your choices and make sure that an inadvertent mistake does not insult someone’s feelings.
Of course, there are many techniques for inventing names that remove this last hurdle. In a poll of aspiring writers currently dealing with the name game, the following suggestions were advanced: Barbara Peterson writes, “I use anagrams of names of actors and their characters whom I like.” Justin Monk suggests reversing names or words to create new ones. Several authors wrote that their characters “name themselves,” appearing full-blown in their creator’s head with name attached. For the novice writer, this might not be as easy as it sounds, but “gut instincts” about a name should definitely be researched for feasibility before being discarded.
Some final thoughts in this section before moving on to speculative genres: Paul Kopal submits the following tip—”Personally, I write down character traits, i.e. Prissy, fidgety, persnickety, pettifogging, nitpicker. From there I mix and match to get Pritty Kitpicker or Feddy Kittyfogger. Then mess the letters around and say it to myself until it sounds like a name in my head, Fetty Kitpogger, Ketty Fedicker and so on.” This tip can also be of use in the less realistic genres we will discuss shortly. Christa Holmans suggests picking words out of the dictionary that describe the character and melding them together.
Historical pieces also merit one final word of caution before we turn to more exotic problems. When working on a realistically historical piece, it is always fruitful to look for reference books containing names contemporary to your characters in both period and geography. Using these parameters, romance author Dorice Nelson comments that she tries “to find a name that will suit the character; for the hero, a name that might have a certain meaning that can be used in the story and one with some hard sounds in it—for the heroine, I try to match up a name that corresponds with her nature or experiences.” Within these excellent limits, it is also good to keep in mind that your reader may not be as familiar with the language of your novel as you are. Your names should be something that the readers can either sound out for themselves in their minds, or for which you give them some clue as to the pronunciation. Otherwise, it may distance them a bit from your characters, which is the last thing you want to happen. If it is of extreme importance that there be an unpronounceable name attached to a character for some specific reason of plot or accuracy, try to give the reader an alternative nickname to call the character by in their head.
Until this point, the majority of this advice has been geared more toward realistic fiction, although some of it will apply to any genre regardless of type. Now let us look a little more specifically at the areas where names are least likely to be found in the phone book—speculative genres like fantasy and science fiction.
One of the special problems in these areas is that you are often inventing a world or two of your own, with languages similar to, but not necessarily identical to any Earthen tongue. Such languages require names that fit their structure. One simple trick for characters in a culture similar to one of our own but with subtle differences is to take a common name and change a letter or two to take it out of the realm of the ordinary. Daniel Prust writes: “I’m not a writer yet, but for my first novel, I have picked names that have similarities by race. For example, all human names have a “y” in them: Tarym, Kamyn, etc.”
In my book, The Luckless Prince, there are two races represented – human and elven. All the human characters, with the quite purposeful exception of the main human POV character Roland, have variant spellings of common names: i.e. Stefan, Collyn, and Daerci. Roland’s name helps to set him apart among the humans because it breaks the pattern.
The elven characters have more exotic names, as is to be expected, but all follow the dictates of the elven language that I created using parameters from a language construction kit. There are fewer letters in the elven alphabet, with none of the hard consonants being included. This helps to establish a more liquid, bird-like sound to the speech. Some names are intended to create a sense of flowing water, as in Andundal, Mendana and Leithan. An abundance of vowels help create the birdcall image: Eeonathor, Eostivil and Andailia. Finally, there are names that help foster the image of a woodland people with the sound of wind through trees: Steavil, Dèodar and Raethan.
Lynn Flewelling, acclaimed fantasy author of the popular Night Runner books and the Tamir trilogy, offers the following tips to keep in mind when creating fantasy names:
1. In our world, you can usually tell what country a person is from, or where their ancestors came from, by their name alone. Welsh or Swiss. French or Spanish. Nigerian or Scots. Chances are you could sort out names fairly reliably without knowing anything else about the person. Have some sense of how names and words work in the different countries in your world.
2. Avoid long, unpronounceable names. Readers have a hard time with character names, anyway. If your character does have a fancy handle (like the Aurënfaie in Traitor’s Moon— a real nightmare to work with, BTW) have a short, familiar version that is more commonly used, or a nickname. But try to avoid having too many names for each character, so that the reader has trouble keeping track of who’s who. Check out the novel Trainspotting for an example of this.
3. All names should have a nice balance of vowels and consonants. And avoid too many accent marks and endless syllables. Ex. H’rak’makÃ¡ndz. Rtmrn. Aolandriamiorni. Unless the reader can come up with “Harry”, “Rot”, and “Al” on their own and make the constant transition, they’re lost. You know from reading my books that I don’t go for simplistic names all the time, but “Alec” is pretty easy to hang onto, and he’s a main POV character. Thero is unusual, but pronounceable and short. Nysander is close to Alexander and so easy to sound out. I use words like Ra’basi almost exclusively for the Aurënfaie, to make the language distinct and a bit exotic.
The same tips that apply to fantasy can be used in creating off-world names for science fiction. Have a plan in mind for what your aliens should sound like, and remember that their names will be extensions of their language, whether you use any other words from their language or not. For example, an insectoid people resembling large crickets might have a lot of hard “K’s” and “R” sounds to their names, as in Kri’rk or Reekrik, while a serpentine race would likely have a great many sibilants, like Ssith or Syris. Without having to create an entire language, you set their worlds apart by the names you choose.
Most of the examples given so far have dealt with “proper” or “given” names—the first names of your characters. What people call them in everyday life. In some cases, that is as much name as you need to give the people of your world, but if it is necessary to become more formal and give the surname or title of a character, there are also many excellent methods of generating an appropriate candidate.
In the case of historical pieces or fantasy, keep in mind that a great many surnames were originally conceived in one of two ways. First, as a “patronym,” or name that showed who your father was—such as Johnson, Peterson, or Benson. In a culture other than English speaking, such names are often created using appropriate markers or endings specific to the language involved. This can also be applied to fantasy languages. In The Luckless Prince, for example, the elven patronymics end in “ae” for a son, and “ia” for a daughter, so that King Andundal’s children are Steavil Andundalae and Mendana Andundalia respectively.
In Lynn Flewelling’s well-defined world, the patronymic signature of “í” is internationally used for males, as in Seregil í Korit. Females, such as Adzriel ä Illia have a matronymic surname, with the marker “ä,” drawn from the mother’s lineage.
The second major method of generating surnames historically was to use the occupation or an outstanding characteristic of an individual to designate them. For example, John [the] Miller, or Peter [the] Archer, Eric Redman or Fredrick Noble. Alternatively, a location or significant landmark could provide a way to tell neighbors apart. For instance, Collyn Silverbrook or Richard [of] Cornwall; Timothy Glenn or Kevin Kirk.
If your story is set in the far future, one handy method for deriving names is to think what sound shifts might occur over the intervening years. For instance, in the Doctor Who episode “State of Decay,” writer Terrance Dicks has the Doctor realize the shift of a name from O’Connor to Aukon over the centuries that the being under discussion has lived. Bearing in mind what lingual changes might come into play, try to imagine what letters might fall away in time, or slip through mispronunciation to become something else. For example, the name Robertson could become Rabersun as sound shifts take place.
Two final notes on creating your names: first, always keep the reader you are aiming for in mind. No matter how strongly your character protests that his name is Elzarienedcorin, if you are writing for children, it is not a good name for your main character. Perhaps for the kindly old wizard who uses it once and then says to your hero, “But you can call me El,” which he does for the remainder of the book, it might work. In general, whether or not Elzarienedcorin’s persuasion might convince you to make an exception, when writing for the preteen set it is best to keep the names short, and easy to pronounce—like Harry Potter.
Secondly, always remember that your readers have to be able to keep up with your characters, and they don’t have the benefit of all those long hours of working with your “children” that you put into the manuscript. Make it easy for your readers to tell your characters apart. Don’t use the same beginning initial for first names of major characters if you can avoid it. Naming your people “Nancy,” “Nick,” and “Norma” just makes things more difficult on your readers, and you want to keep them happy. Of course, it is possible that you chose to do this to purposefully create such confusion—but make sure it is a conscious choice and not a mistake. The same rule applies to last names. Try to keep surnames varied as well. Only members of the same family should have the same final initial.
Look for names everywhere. Keep lists. There was a neat graffiti tag on a train car the other day, and I jotted down the name “Joroe.” I’ve collected names from license plates, classmates, song lyrics and television shows. The mustache-twirling villain of The Nearly Notorious Nun was named Nordham Sissinghurst after two streets I pass by quite often.
Keep it simple; fit your action and setting; and have fun. Playing the Name Game should be one of the most enjoyable tasks of your writing life. Remember that an appropriately chosen name can help cement a character in the memory of your reader for years to come—just look at how many centuries Romeo has been capturing the minds and hearts of theatergoers worldwide. “Henry and Juliet” just doesn’t have the same impact at all.