The Art of Names
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Written by
Laura R. Hepworth
13 days ago
Contributor

What's in a name? In short, a great deal. You want a name that is memorable, evokes the right emotions when heard, feels like it belongs with the charactor or place it belongs to, and is unique.  Have you ever noticed though that one of the hardest parts of developing your characters or places is in how to name them? It's a simple yet crucial part of storytelling. Sometimes, selecting the right names can almost be harder than writing the story itself. Some authors are amazing at the art of name creation. The names they create aren't just original, but give a glimpse into the character or place itself and help to establish the overall tone of the story, or at least their part of it. The names does just fall flat, but create an emotional response when you hear or read them. Yet creating these kinds of names does not come easy to everyone. While some authors are masters at this, others struggle.

I love names and everything about them. I love hearing how they sound and seeing how they're spelt. I love diving into what they're origins are, how old the name is, and what they mean. And I also love creating new ones. I don't claim to be one of those naming masters I referenced above, but names are one aspect of writing where I struggle the least and thought I'd share some tips or ideas for those that find the task more difficult than I.

Naming considerations:

  • What genre are you writing in?
  • Where is your story set? 
  • When is your story set?
  • This may be obvious, but is your character male or female?
  • How old is your character?
  • What do you want your name to say about that character or place?
  • Are you choosing real names or inventing your own names?

 

I could go on for some time with this list, but let's just start with these seven considerations. It may also be helpful to note at a lot of these considerations will overlap.

What genre are you writing in?

This is one of the first aspects of your names that you should consider.  Historical Fiction will often have very different names than Contemporary Fiction. Science Fiction and Fantasy will be drastically different from General Fiction or any real world fiction. Is your story in the sub-genre of Humourous Fiction? If so, you may want to consider names that are tongue-and-cheek or have hidden puns (an excellant example of this can be found in almost any of Jasper Fforde's books). Determining you genre (and even sub-genre(s)) will determine a great deal about the kinds of names you select or create. It will especially determine whether you choose pre-existing names or create your own.

Where is your story set?

This may seem self-explanatory, but, again, it is a very important consideration. Would you choose Mexican names if your story is set in Greece? Or African names for Russia? In most cases the answer to this will be no, however, there are exceptions. Characters or places not from where the story is set will not adhere to the same type of names. Again, this may seem obvious, but the point I'm trying to make is to consider your setting (all of it): the place, the time, and the culture of your characters/places and name them accordingly. If you don't, have a backstory for why the name stands out from the others and why it's different from what you would expect. A character whose parents are from Europe may choose to give their child a name from another culture if there is sentimental attachement to it, perhaps that's where they met or where their child was born. Names don't always have to fit with where the namee is from, but it is a good starting point for consideration, and, when breaking with it, it is good to consider why you chose to do so.

For those writing Science Fiction or Fantasy, the 'where' is still an improtant consideration, but there is much more latitude for the names. Some things to consider, is your fantasy/sci-fi location/culture influenced by any real cultures? If so, perhaps consider how those names sound or look when creating your own. Have you defined your character/places culture? If not, you should. Not only will this help you with your world-building, but it will help you with your naming and with consistancy as well.

When is you story set? 

This is closely related to the first to considerations. At mentioned earlier, if you are writing Historical Fiction you names are likely to be rather different from if you were writing Contemporary Fiction. Why? Because naming trends are constatnly in flux. Be aware of what the naming trends were/are for the period in which you ar writing. There will still be a lot of overlapping names, but perhaps the spelling has changed over ther years. Need help knowing what names were popular for a certain period? Try looking for censuses for that time and see what inspiration you get. Do research on what the naming trends were at that time. Are you writing Historical Fantasy? Well, if so maybe use a combination of real names and your own invented names.

Is your character male or female?

It's an obvious question, but still important. Unless you mean to be ambigious, it's usually not a good thing to leave your readers wondering about this aspect of your character. Also, while giving girls names typically given to guys has been popular in recent years, you may not want to do this yourself depending upon when/where you story is set. (Again, be aware of all aspects of your story's setting so that you create a cohesive whole. Using current naming trends in a story set before those trends will not always work well. Sometimes you may be able to pull this off, but often it will just look out of place.) However, something else to interject here is that there are several names now considered to be girls names that actually started out as guys names. If your interested, you can find a list of some of these names at Nameberry.

How old is your character?

This is sort of an off-shoot of asking about when your story was set, but consider when your characters were born. The naming trend might have been different then than your story's now. Or, the name might still be a popular name, but the spelling might have been different.

What do you want your name to say about that character or place?

Ah, this is where things can really get fun. Think about the character of the character. What kind of person are they? Are they your story's hero? The villian? Just a passing thorugh background character? If it's a place you're naming. What is the place like? What kind of culture does it have? What about it's political or societal environment? You can convey a lot of this by how you name them. Think about what mood or tone you want to create. Do you want to convey mystery? What about arrogance or meekness? A name can evoke all of this. If you are using real names, consider the name's origin and what it means. There are many great sites out there that can help you with this, or, go to your public library and look for books on baby names (you'll find them in the 929.4s if your library uses the Dewey system).

Are you choosing real names or inventing your own?

And this is where a lot of people can really struggle. It's hard enough sometimes chossing the right name among actual names being used, but completely creating your own is often a lot harder.  However, it is not impossible, as evidenced by the mountain of Science Fiction and Fantasy novels out there. There is a lot of freedom in inventing your own names, howeve, there are still a lot of things to consider. Most importantly, can the name be pronounced? How does the name sound when pronounced? Does it look interesting on paper? If no one can determine how to say the name you've invented, than you've got a problem. It's going to be very difficult for potential fans to discuss your books and their favorite characters if they struggling to say their names! I've seen a lot of authors fail in this area. Consider the length of the names. Is it too short? Too long? Shorter names will often work better than overly long names, but you don't want to restrict your naming to just them. Use a balance in name lengths, however, keep in mind that the longer the name is the harder it will be to remember it. Also, when you go with longer names, be very careful not to make it difficult to pronounce. Don't just write out your names, trying saying them out loud. Does it roll of your tongue or are you finding your own tongue tripping over it? If the latter, reject the name and try again. 

Depending on how indepth you want to go with your world building, consider creating your own language and have an actual meaning to the names. This can create an add another element of interest to your story. However, beware that language creation is not for the faint of heart. Prepare to spend months or even years developing your language (spoken and written) and to make continued revisions to it as you go along. If you do go this route, I would highly recommend you read 'The Art of Language Invention' by David J. Peterson. It's a fabulous book all about this topic!

Something you should not do, however, is use someone else's invented language to create names for your own stories. Believe it or not, I've seen this done. There is an acclaimed, traditionally published YA Fantasy author, whom I will not name, that very obviously used Tolkien's Elvish to create names for places in his books. It's for that reason alone I refuse to read his books. I picked the first one up once and while looking at the maps recognized some of the names. Some came directly from Tolkien's lesser read books, while others were this author's own composite using Tolkien's Elvish. Now, this might be acceptable in fanfic, but not for an actual published work. It is sloppy, lazy, and, I would go so far as to say, unethical to rip off someone else's language like that and pass it off as your own. Don't get me wrong, there are ways where you can use another's language that are perfectly acceptable but they are ways that make it clear to the reader where they originate from. Writing a Contemporary Fiction novel with characters that are Star Trek geeks? Perfectly fine to have them speaking in Klingon or naming their cat after Data. That's called giving homage, but writing your own characters, in your own world with no connection to their true origin? That isn't homage, that's lazy writing so don't do it. A lot of people may not notice it, but there will be those (like me) that do and you will turn them off your books by doing it.

Concluding thoughts and suggestions:

Ok, so here are some end of post ideas. Whether or not you struggle with names it is an excellent idea to keep a name journal. Come across a name in a book you were reading that you liked? Write it down. You may not be able to use that name depending on what you're writing or how you intend to use it, but it might still be able to give you inspiration for your own names. See a town or street name that looks interesting? Write it down, believe it or not this can actually be a very successful source for names. Basically, any time you hear a name that you think sounds interesting, write it down. Perhaps do some research on the name to find out its origin and alternatite spellings. Maybe even experiment with your own alternate spellings of it. Some authors had admitted to picking out letters from a hat and trying to arrange them into names that they think will work. Sometimes it does, however, I would really advice that you steer clear of this practice as it most often results in names that are hard to pronounce. Also, don't forget the last names! When naming, make sure that the first and last names work well together and don't sound awkward. Unless, of course, that awkwardness is going to be a story element itself. Lastly, don't forget to have fun! Naming is not meant to be daunting. Naming should be fun, relaxing even. It's another way to add depth to your story and show your creativity, just be careful not to get too carried away.

Anyways, I know this is a rather long article (and, if you've made it this far, thank you for sticking with me!), but I hope you've found something in here that will be useful to you! Thank you for reading and happy writing!

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