“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” ~William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet Act II, Scene II
Sometimes one of the more difficult challenges for a writer is naming their characters. They want something that will define who they are, as a person, but also to make them stand apart from everyday people in real life. This week we’ll look at advice on naming your characters and where to look for ideas.
Life Imitates Art
Regardless of how careful you are in selecting your character’s name, there is also a slight chance that someone in the real world has that very same name. One of the best examples I can think of is the American version of the 1954 movie, Godzilla, King of the Monsters. They brought in Raymond Burr to play news reporter, Steve Martin. Twenty plus years later, a young actor/comedian came onto the scene named, Steve Martin.
Naturally this is a coincidence and, just for the record, Steve Martin was born in 1945. I’m sure this never caused problems in general for Mr. Martin until, maybe, Godzilla 1985 arrived which was to be a direct sequel to the ’54 movie. Raymond Burr, once again, reprises his role as Steve Martin. By this time the comedian has gotten a foothold in Hollywood and perhaps some found it confusing to hear that the bearded Mr. Burr was playing, “Steve Martin”.
Of course if you’re writing the Fantasy genre or even Science Fiction, there’s a slim to no chance that your characters will be the names of real people. People might name their children after your characters, which isn’t new, but it could be very flattering. On the other hand, no one would want to go to school with a classmate named Voldemort.
To use the TV series, Firefly as an example, there is always a possibility that there might be someone named Malcolm Reynolds or Kaylee Frye, but a slimmer chance with the names Hoban Washburne and Inara Serra. As we head further into our own future, some of these names will be as common as Joe Smith and Bob Jones.
How original should I be?
Speaking of Joe Smith and Bob Jones, some writers might ask, “How do I create original character names without being obvious?” The answer to this question varies based on the decisions of the author. If you’re writing a fictional story that takes place in our world and our time, you’re going to run into plain names such as Joe and Bob. To make them unique you can always add a middle name, a numeral; to show his name is passed down from generation to generation, or give him a nickname.
Character names are can be based on a region that he is born. For example, you won’t find many people in America named ‘Colin’ or ‘Basil’ but in Great Britain, the names are as common as George or Fred.
The same works in Fantasy settings; a character’s name might have more vowels in it, like natives of Hawaii, if they live in the Northern Territory; or they might have a similar prefix or suffix to their name to denote that they are slaves from The Wasteland.
My overall advice is to keep the names easy to pronounce and easy to remember. I read where one Fantasy author provided a pronunciation guide to go along with the book so you can properly pronounce the characters names. If you have to do this, I would recommend renaming the characters. The last thing I want to do is refer to another book just to know how to pronounce their names. I’ll give up the book long before chapter 2 in that instance.
In my own writings I have two characters whose names seem long and difficult but they’re pronounced the way they are written. One is a dwarf named, Pendergrass Snickersnee; and the other is a gnome-like character named, Finnbiddle Pilwicket.
Both look difficult at the first appearance but they are pronounced as they are written. So you see you can have Fantasy or Sci-Fi names that appear complicated but are easy to pronounce. If that’s not enough, you can always shorten a name to give him a nickname. I refer to Finnbiddle simply as Finn.
How do I choose names?
There are a variety of ways to choose names for your characters. Here’s an article from fellow author, Chris Andrews, and how he chooses names.
Name generators found on the internet are a great way to create names for Fantasy and/or Sci-Fi characters. I’ll post the links at the bottom of this article.
If you’re looking to name a character based on a certain meaning or a certain word, you can use 20,000 Names website. They have ethnic names from different parts of the world; both male and female, and the meanings of each name.
For example my character Ravenkeep in book 3 of The Askinar Towers trilogy has a pirate ship named, The Malandra. I found the word at this website and here is the meaning…
MALANDRA: Modern English compound name composed of Mal- (“dark, black”) from Malinda, and Sandra “defender of mankind.”
As you can see the word is a form of the color, Black which is also the color of the ship.
If you work a day job in addition to being a writer, sometimes they will put out a company magazine every month. Usually they’ll list names of employees how have been with the company for a number of years based on the state they work in. This is a great way to take someone’s first name and combine it with someone’s last name to create a new name for a character. In book 3, The Reverend Edward Hardwick was named after two employees of the company. I keep a stack of magazines on hand when I need to name a character and don’t always have access to the internet.
Try and be as original with your character’s names but not too original that it seems obvious or difficult that you have to put out a pronunciation guide. Try not to make it a huge chore either. As you’re working on your first draft, if you can’t come up with a name simply insert something (anything) as a marker then you can come back and replace it at a later time once you’ve had the chance to think about it.
How do you come up with names for your characters? Do you use generators? Names of friends? Or do they come to you in dreams? Share your experience in the comments below.
Here are some of my favorite name generator sites:
Seventh Sanctum: Characters Seventh Sanctum has a wide variety of name generators.
The Real Mormon Name Generator (Rum and Monkey) No disrespect but this puts out some great names that would be perfect for Fantasy stories.
Fake Name Generator This is for mainstream fiction. This not only gives you a random name but a street address, city, state, zip, birthdate, Mother’s maiden name, etc.