Saturday, 11 October 2014

Writing a Book - Creating Character Names

Ok, this issue really applies mainly to fantasy and sci-fi authors. It is an important issue and can be quite a challenge. From a reader’s perspective, there’s nothing more off-putting by names that don’t quite roll off the tongue, as it were. For example -- Gragle, Rambalin, Dfrolph are names off the top of my head Surely the reader expects and deserves a little bit more than this. Some names (the latter one) are impossible to pronounce or even imagine, so what does make a good name? I think it’s some sense of familiarity, but not too familiar to be in a fiction novel. Odds are if you liek teh sound of a name, it should work. (I actually quite like Graggle. Hmmm, perhaps another time).

For a great name, I am reminded of a Dragon Lance book which opened with Flint Fireforge. He’s a dwarf of course, but the name is brilliant. It immediately conjures up a character without actually writing much else. Of course it’s great to have a description, but get a name right and that’s half the battle. This reflects the power in a name.

So where did I get my inspiration for names. Initially it was easy, but then later as the character list grew I had to resort to a few tricks. These tricks may or may not suit you, but the way I went about this may inspire other thoughts so bear with me.

I used several different approaches. I wanted names that were familiar to us, but different. The following methods formed the backbone of my naming convention:

  1. Changing names I was already aware of.
  2. Making an anagram of someone’s name
  3. Looking at maps and other sources for names for ones I liked.
  4. Shortening a common name.

Changing a name is easy and that immediately sounds familiar. Steven can become Stefan. Jonathan became Chanathan. The familiarity of the name made them acceptable in my view. If the name is still too familiar then try the next suggestions.

I needed the name for a witch in book 2 of my trilogy. My mother-in-law is called Moira and so I used the letters of her name to make up another. It wasn’t quite an anagram, but it was close. I came up with Ariome. This name and character has grown on me over the years and, like many of my characters, I cannot now see her named anything else. My worst mistake though was mentioning her to my mother-in-law. A lot of creeping on my part and I am just about forgiven.

The third suggestion on the list proved interesting. I looked at a map and then settled on names I just liked the sound of. Dalamere was one and Dalamere the third just seemed to leap from the page. He became a historical figure who caused another figure great angst. Dalamere had an ability to detach his spirit from his body and he used this ability to spy on people and then to blackmail them. Again, Dalamere is another character that I couldn’t imagine being called anything else. A purist could point out that a mere is a small mountain lake and some folk may even know of  the place, but again familiarity makes it immediately acceptable, in my view.

Another name I liked was Chanteal, and I used that as a mountain range, which I think it was on the map. Chanteal is probably not a well known name and I am relying on that unfamiliarity to help me gain an acceptable name in a book.

For the last suggestion on the list I liked Nathanial as a name (I have several great grandparents and great great grandpa etc called that) so I shortened it to Nate. It’s a familiar sounding name, but not too common so could easily feature ins a fictional novel. This character was a simple soldier and helped me to give the perspective of my land from a low born person. Nate is a simple name and seemed to work, in my mind.

I also used some naming conventions. In Scotland mountains are called Bens (Ben Nevis for example) so I used Kin for forests (KinAnor, KinKassack) and Ban for mountains. (BanKildor). I admire authors who take the time to make names of different races similar. For example in Poland everyone seems to have ...ol at the end of their name. For Russian it seems to be ...ov. Adopting a naming convention may help to make your characters sound as though they are regional. I think that would be incredibly difficult to do. I didn’t, so please treat this suggestion with caution.

A pet hate is when people start a book with a string of names and place names. For example Gragle, Rambalin, Dfrolph were travelling to Front, a city at the heart of Kronk Empire.

It’s very difficult for a reader to pick up several new names in one go, especially when they are unfamiliar. Making the names more familiar would help, but don’t throw them at a reader like a handful of grit cast so carelessly aside. You need to nurture the name and the character in the reader’s mind. Introduce them singly and get the reader familiar with them before introducing more characters.

Further sources of names that you could play with are historical names. You could use these immediately as they are familiar in some sense, but again not too familiar. Have a look at Appendix:English_surnames_from_Old_English 

I liked Buckley which immediately sprang out. Then you can start playing with that name, Bruckley, Brackley...etc, Then there’s variations on an anagram theme e.g. Rubley. I am not suggesting these names are good, but I am showing a process of how to generate names.

A tip someone else gave me was to make each character memorable. Bruckley may have an eye patch, so when you describe him several pages on you can remind the reader which character you are referring to by mentioning, Buckley adjusted his eye patch, a habit more than anything else... Finally, keep a character list with their mannerisms, dress sense, hair and eye colour etc as you may need to refer back to this several times. Don’t skimp and a page per character is probably sensible.


The important thing is that you are the author. Have fun and play around with names. If you like the sound then it is likely your readers will as well. Good luck.

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