Fantasy names and naming characters in general

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Sun Jul 29, 2007 9:46 pm Post

I'm a big fan of the SF/Fantasy genre and am currently embarking on a fantasy novel (with the help of Scrivener, of course) but here's the thing, I'm not actually a huge fan of the character names in fantasy novels. Stories in fantastical settings I can write, but I find giving characters what would be considered traditional fantasy names, with apostrophes where apostrophes have no earthly right to dwell, I hit a stumbling block. The names don't ring true or feel naff.

Until I get a name that feels right, it impacts on my writing and I struggle. Using placeholders doesn't help at all, as I feel the correct name gives the character more life in my head, and makes the story flow smoother as I write.

So how do people cope with character naming?

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Sun Jul 29, 2007 10:11 pm Post

Agree entirely - I can't write until I have a character's name.

If you're looking for something outlandish (literally) then one of my all-time favourite tricks is to look at really small place names in a really big world atlas. I've found lots of great names this way. You don't have to stick with what you find of course; you can mess around with the sounds and how it looks, etc.

Another great source is historical literature, and something like Bullfinch's Complete Mythology or Brewer's "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" would come in useful, as would 'novelty' baby-name books based on ancient gods and goddesses etc. The first two of those can be found online through this link (and there's some other neat resources there too).

I guess if you're looking at 'other galaxy' names you might want to get further from something recognisable, so that means combining words (no irritating apostrophes though - I'm with you on that). Who knows - you might find someone has even made a "sci-fi character name generator" website. If not - any web developers out there want to make one?


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Sun Jul 29, 2007 10:42 pm Post

The name is seldom a problem, but adding the flesh and a personality is where I begin struggling. Once the character wakes and starts talking though, it’s often a struggle just to keep up! :shock:
Can't write right. Don't care neither. Er...either.

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Mon Jul 30, 2007 3:55 am Post

Ugh, random apostrophes.

Also ugh, is pulling letters out of a hat (or a scrabble bag) and using them in the order pulled.

My preference is for pulling random *syllables* out of a (mental) hat. I can weight the syllables for characteristics of their language (if I have any idea what it should sound like) but otherwise I'm at least guaranteed it's pronounceable.

I try to get the name on paper as soon as possible after bringing in a new character, otherwise they develop a nameless personality and I have a hard time fitting a name to it. If they have a name from the start, the personality forms around the name.

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Mon Jul 30, 2007 4:31 am Post

I'm currently finishing my 2nd fantasy novel (and "currently" can be taken literally ;) ). My characters names are not based on anything - but more than once I had to change a name, because I had made something up that was actually a city in Iraq and suddenly in the news every day or the name of some medicine (internet search is your friend ...).

The names are made up letter by letter with two things in mind:

- Distinction.
I hate it when characters names sound too similar. I remember mixing up "Saruman" and "Sauron" when I read LotR for the first time. In my expierience the easiest way to avoid this is to have names with as many different first letters as possible.

- Sound.
Now that's a question of individual taste. Some people like "my" names, others can't get used to them. But I try to let the names sound as fitting to the character as possible, but not too telling ("Lou Cipher", anyone? :D).

And: I NEVER use apostrophes and the like. Never. I despise it when fantasy tries hard to be fantasy by using names like "Nûgg'élôtàr" ...

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Mon Jul 30, 2007 6:24 am Post

Tolkien was a linguist who invented languages for fun. Most of us aren't nearly as good at it.

I'm certainly not. But then, I like historical fantasy, which lets me use names characteristic of whatever period I'm borrowing from.


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Mon Jul 30, 2007 3:42 pm Post

Unlike what seems to be the general consensus here, I actually find random apostrophe placement kind of fun sometimes. I like bizarre names, to be honest. Not a lot, mind you, but they are interesting sometimes. (Nûgg'élôtàr...that's a good one...:wink:)

I pull a lot of my fantasy names from my trusty Latin, Gaelic, and Hebrew dictionaries, combining different words (totally incorrectly as far as the actual languages go, I know) to make names.

I have a friend who just mashes his hands on the keyboard and then deletes letters from the resulting mess until he gets something readable.
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Mon Jul 30, 2007 9:39 pm Post

Gene Wolfe, in his Book of the New Sun series, used actual English words which had fallen into disuse to name his characters, places, and objects.

Browsing through my own OED not only wastes time in a delightful way, but you run across the nicest bits of knowledge.

I always make my names distinctive from one another, because I also had trouble with Saruman" and "Sauron," especially if one is a fast reader and uses the recognition technique, instead of actually sounding them out.

A work in progress...

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Tue Jul 31, 2007 6:57 am Post

On a less serious note, I know of people who use the names that appear on spam emails (was that mentioned on this forum somewhere...I can't remember - I have severe CRAFT).

After a while, you end up checking the sender's names on all your spam, just in case you get a great character (today I got one from "Heriberto Horner" who wants to sell me a rolex).

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Tue Jul 31, 2007 7:03 am Post

Ahh yes. Rolex products are being traded by some interesting characters these days. I was offered unbeatable prices by a certain Mr Assimonius Blow. :)
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Tue Jul 31, 2007 8:33 pm Post

Some good resources mentioned in this thread. I actually bought the Oxford Latin dictionary today as a result. :)

The mention of a sci-fi name generator led me to this as well:

As for taking names from spam emails, I read that in the NaNoWriMo book, No Plot? No Problem! There really are some outlandish names. Here's two from todays batch of spam in my inbox... Hubert Orozco and Zamora T. Louise.

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Mon Aug 06, 2007 11:02 am Post

Give us a character that we may name him or her.

Merdle the merkin maker.

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Fri Sep 14, 2007 1:33 am Post

This has to be the best email correspondent name for pharmacy spam I've ever seen:

Cynosure L. Agar


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Sat Sep 15, 2007 4:14 pm Post

One thing I've noticed is that some of my favorite authors are simply terrible at naming characters. With a good story it doesn't really matter, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy writing. Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, probably the most shining examples, managed to come up with some of the most ridiculous names this side of the Illuminatus! Trilogy.

Generally, until I can find a name for a character, it's "Jack the <vocation or personality trait>." I try to find something that fits when I have the chance, or I wait for divine inspiration. Sometimes having his or her actions and personality fleshed out will create a good name later on.
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John Dodds
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Mon Nov 12, 2007 4:02 pm Post

Good character names can be useful whether you're writing mainstream fiction or fantasy. It's very easy, however, to write dreadful fantasy names. Instead of the usual apostrophe thing, why not look at inspiration from other languages? Japanese characters, French ones? Or names that SOUND like they are from another country (which, in a fantasy setting, they are).

But if you're writing comic fantasy, that's another matter...
Roman gladiator? Gluteus Maxius
(or, remember Monty Python's Biggus Dickus)

Starter for ten: why not have a look at names from other languages, and combine, for example, an Arabic surname

with a German name:

And slightly mis-spell them (substitute y for i, for example).


Look up words which relate to your character's profession, and see if there are any hints there.

Plenty of ways into the subject...