When asked about what the most difficult thing related to writing is, many writers will joke and say that it is coming up with good names for their characters. Either that or finding the inspiration, which more often than not is an actual lack of motivation more than anything else. One of the bigger challenges we’re faced with is not creating characters, no that’s easy, the difficult part is making them feel like living, breathing people. What I suspect is the biggest reason why many struggle with it, is that they are doing the very thing I caught myself doing a moment ago: I was projecting myself onto a character. I scrapped the character completely once I realised I was looking at a mirror image with a different name.
(Caroline Frechette has written a great post on the topic of writing well-rounded characters, in fact, she has written a number of very useful and helpful posts that are well worth your time. Check out and follow her blog!)
Speaking of names, I have a love-hate relationship with names in Fantasy stories. I have actually refrained from reading a couple of books at all because the names of the lead characters were impossible to pronounce or felt really clunky on the tongue. Obviously, what passes for a good name is highly subjective but as a general rule I tend to follow a few guidelines:
1. Names should fit the culture the character is from.
I’m a big fan of name cohesion, if a character is from Culture A there has to be a reason for giving that character a name from e.g. Culture B or C. Perhaps he/she has a parent from a different culture. Then again, names are often considered important things and humans tend to react whenever they hear a name they’re not used to.
2. Is it reasonably easy to pronounce?
Like I’ve already mentioned above, to me, and a lot of others I imagine, this is important stuff. If I’m going to have to pause and stumble over a character’s name every time it comes up on a page it’s going to get annoying. In fantasy I often see clunky vowel combinations, or vowel-heavy names. Here are a couple of extreme examples from a name generator:
Aerith, Aserainao, Opieyi, Jylacanu, Aghaiana.
Whenever possible, keep the names you use short and relatively simple. That or use a nickname if the character has a relatively long name. In short, steer clear from using, ae, iea, aie, jy, iei, eie, and other such combinations too often.
3. Does it sound like an “Elven,” “Orcish,” or “Dwarven” name?
For me this is a no-no, but that might have more to do with the fact that I think that kind of Fantasy story is getting outdated. It has been done, time and again, and I don’t think there is much more to be found by revisiting it. That’s a discussion for another post, though.
4. Has anyone else used it?
Even though there are more people with the same name in reality, I personally try not to use names that I’ve seen in either classics or recent popular media, be it TV-series, books, or movies. However, if you’re in love with the notion of using a particular name and believe that you can do a better character than others have done with that name, then by all means, go for it.
Regardless of how you choose your names or what kind of names you do choose, finding a one that fits can be very difficult. Name generators can have limited use in helping you find a decent name. The problem, as I see it, is that the names they usually generate tend to be very clunky. It’s as if though someone tossed a game of scrabble into a blender and took only the letters that survived the blend. That and the fact that the more people who use a specific generator, the more alike the names we’ll see become.
Whether you come up with your fantasy names by stringing sounds and letters together after your own rhyme and reason or borrow from already established cultures, studying name statistics will benefit you. Looking at a culture or geographical area and what the places and people are named will give you a feel for what kind of sounds make sense to people from that region. Here’s where cohesion becomes so important, for myself as a Scandinavian names like Björnåker, Torvaldsson, Ljøkelsøy, or Algrøy aren’t that strange. What is important for me to keep in mind, since I’ve based a culture on Scandinavia in terms of names, is that I choose names that will be easier to grasp for non-Scandinavians. So rather than using Ljøkelsøy I could use Omdal, Osland, Ulstein, or Norheim, which are all common surnames in Norway and don’t have as many sounds unfamiliar to non-Scandinavians.
Lastly, some questions for you, dear reader!
What are your thoughts on character names or naming things in general:
What makes a good name?
What makes a bad name?
Do you have an established method for choosing or finding names that suit your needs?