Writing Fantasy: Coming up with Names

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?

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About Fredrik Kayser

Everything is connected.
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17 Responses to Writing Fantasy: Coming up with Names

  1. joshuabertetta8306 says:

    Reblogged this on The Story of the Four.

  2. Fredrik Kayser says:

    Oh, yes, you’re right. That completely slipped my mind, haha. Raenira of Velundane seems pretty legit to me, since as you pointed out, as long as it’s only two syllables it isn’t too tricky to figure out. It flows nicely off of the tongue as well. I’d say it’s a perfectly respectable name for a character.

    Other than that, well, it’s a very typical fantasy styled name. It comes down to personal preference, I tend to lean away from those types of names but there are just as many writers and readers who love them. :)

  3. geekritiqued says:

    ^I’d like your* opinion on a name I’ve been working with. Raenira of Velundane. Pronounced rhye-nira

  4. geekritiqued says:

    I thought it a bit funny that Aerith landed on the list, a name made exceptionally popular after Final Fantasy VII. I never found it difficult to pronounce as it’s merely two syllables. Naturally with English pronunciation it’s merely Air-ith, but using the Latin diphthong correctly it should be eye-rith. I can totally see how the others would be easy to confuse. I’d like y

  5. Great piece. I often struggle with character names and settle for something temporary, but then I get attached and changing it feels like I’m murdering my character.

  6. Fredrik Kayser says:

    Nice ^^

  7. Oh and I just saw the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge for this week and amazingly it’s all about names too! Coincidence or fate? :D

  8. Oh and I just saw the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge for this week and amazingly it’s all about names too! Coincidence or fate? :D

  9. Thanks, and awesome idea! We can’t be the only ones who struggle with names lol. And it varies with me, sometimes the name hits me before I know the character and sometimes I wait weeks. There’s one name I literally been waiting years for, I have a name I use for him, but it still doesn’t feel quite right, but I don’t know if that’s because when I first met the character it was in a dream and he was in the guise of someone I knew and it made things more personal in a way and for a long time I had a hard time seeing clearly who was my character vs who was my friend. Sounds weird I know, lol, but names are so personal and it’s often a tricky buisness.

  10. Fredrik Kayser says:

    Thank you:) I’d love to read that post! I’ve browsed my fair share of baby names websites as well, hehe. Perhaps we should do something like a resources post on naming! Fo me it usually takes a while to figure out a name.

  11. Great post! I was thinking of doing a name-based post myself the other day lol. I too have a love/hate relationship with character names. Sometimes the name is presented to me easily with no muss or fuss, but other times I feel like I have to work rather hard to discover it, like the character is waiting for me to prove myself dedicated enough to the project before they give me a name. That being said, if a name doesn’t come to me quickly enough, my first stop is the baby names websites, they’re so helpful, especially if I know the meaning of the name, the culture it comes from, or just the first letter. :D

  12. Just Patty says:

    That’s a idea! :)
    I do carry my smartphone with a little notebook on it everywhere to quick type in any ideas or sentences for poems and stuff when I think of them. (otherwise, I would probably spend my days dreaming together poems lol) But I never thought of writing down names when I come across one I like! Good idea!
    Hugz

  13. Hi Fredrik.

    Yes it’s mostly gut feeling, and that includes the association of name to character. Also, in my novel there are nobles and commoners, so their names need to feel different, generally those of the nobles being more pretentious of course.
    Sometimes it seems easy, others go through a few changes!

  14. Fredrik Kayser says:

    Haha, that must be nice, Patty! Would make my life so much esier if the characters spawned with names and all. I’ve used similar methods, I always carry a notepad with me at all times and I have a name-bank on one of the pages. What I sometimes do is show that name-bank to friends and ask that they select the names they like. I take the slected candidates and make a new list and repeat the process. I have also made it a habit of writing down names I like whenever I see one.

  15. Just Patty says:

    Very interesting post Fredrik! Thanks for sharing! :)
    As for myself, my main characters mostly just ‘pop up’ complete with names and all. They are just ‘there’ for some reason. As for the other characters and the dragon names I am using in my books, I either come up with them or my friends and family come up with the names. I even once asked everyone to come up with a cool dragon name because I was just blank. Lol, people sure had a lot of fun coming up with a fitting name for a dragon! And I got some great names out of it too!
    Lots of love
    Patty

  16. Fredrik Kayser says:

    Hello there, Clive Anthony!

    Thanks for commenting, and I’ve also had a couple of eye-opening experiences when I’ve googled names to ensure their relative uniqueness. Humbling, really, haha. It’s a habit every writer should indeed get into.

    How do you know when you’ve found the name that fits, is it a gut-feeling or more of a sound to type of character association, e.g. a tough character having a tough-sounding name?

  17. I start with the character and try to make up a name that ‘fits’. But then I usually end up playing around with it. It has to look and sound alright as well as be unique.
    On the latter point I have learned to carefully Google new names to make sure they are unique – my lesson was having my son explain that one name was very close to a word for a niche sexual activity. Tad embarrassing. I’d never heard of it but no doubt many readers would have….

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