What’s in a name, Jar Jar?

This post is more a rumination than anything approaching “advice.” Because really, if anybody knew anything about any aspect of writing that was true in all times and places, I feel like I would have seen it in my facebook newsfeed by now. Different strokes for different folks, we’re all perfect snowflakes, yadda-yadda-yadda. But here are some things I think I know about giving names to those little imps running around our narratives, couched in Star Wars terms in a blatant attempt to hold people’s interest.

First off, I’m not really talking about any genres you can call “contemporary,” wherein there is a reasonable chance of plucking a name for a character out of a phonebook. (Are there still phonebooks around?) From a mystery to a thriller to a YA to a horror novel, to anything else set more-or-less in the “now,” you can find a plausible character name just about anywhere around you, including mailboxes and Baby Name websites. Ditto with a historical work; there are plentiful resources online to find common names of any era, anywhere on earth. Lists there are aplenty, and you can scroll down them until a name “speaks” to you as perfect for your protag, or for that milkman who says two words in chapter thirty-four before the ghouls eat him.

But what, one might ask, is the poor author of Sci Fi or Fantasy to do? In a lot of genres that get dropped in the box labeled “Speculative Fiction” (it’s a weird box), the writer often has to make up a whole world before they can tell a story in it. People, places, and things that there never were before, and if they all seem just like some “real world” entity with the smallest twitch (pointy ears!), the whole world may not ring true. As characters are necessarily going to be front-and-center of anything but the most experimental writing, the names given to these people are going to be a big point-of-entry to the world the author is laboring to create.

To wit, “Jim McCaffery” (pulled it out of a phonebook, still got one) might work fine as an IRS agent in Dallas. But he’s probably not the Dragon Slaying Berserker long foretold by the bards. For speculative fiction, authors are going to find themselves coming up with words for all sorts of weird stuff, but nothing is going to be quite so noticeable as the names of the main characters. Which brings me, as promised, to Star Wars.

Let me start with the first movie, by which I do not mean “episode one,” but rather the movie that was actually called “Star Wars” for years and years. (Fine, fine, fine: “Episode IV: A New Hope.” You happy now, nerds?) While we the viewers start the story up in space for some ship-to-ship combat and a boarding action, then escape with the droids, the main character who the rest of the story is going to build around is the planetside farm kid working for his uncle. And in a world called “Tatooine” full of “Jawas” and “Banthas,” (try to remember a time before you knew what all those words meant) what is the name of this exotic intergalactic hero?

Luke Skywalker.

Luke? This space kid with the floating convertible has a name that goes back to the Bible? And yet it is so American, it could be applied to some good ol’ boy terrorizing Hazard County law enforcement in an orange Dodge Charger with a Confederate flag on the roof? Yup, Luke. Luke “Skywalker.” Not a typical surname, I grant you, but recognizably English to the extent that it looks like it could mean something. Something comprehensible, which a viewer (or reader) can hold on to securely once we start talking about “Wookies” or, heaven help us, “midi-chlorians.”

Now, as I mentioned above, sometimes taking a step back and considering Star Wars names or terminology can be extremely difficult for those of us who, let’s face it, grew up on all this stuff. Try this out as a test:  Qui-Gon Jinn. Yes, that was Liam Neeson in “The Phantom Menace,” but really, doesn’t that still just seem like a really weird name? Quasi-Japanese/Arabic, or something. Did you even remember it before I typed it? Now try this: Obi-wan Kenobi.

I contend that the name Obi-wan Kenobi is no less weird than Qui-Gon Jinn, but the fact is you’ve probably known the name Obi-wan for more than thirty years, or else you gave up reading this post in confusion several paragraphs ago. Once a name enters the collective consciousness, it is no longer “weird” in-and-of-itself, no matter how weird it is. Lady Gaga. However, please do not take that to mean that I am urging you to name your Epic Fantasy hero Horothagarian Falducketaskar while just hoping it will catch on, eventually. Because what is Obi-wan Kenobi mostly called for the first couple reels of Star Wars? That’s right. Ben.

Even in Star Wars, a movie that was remarkable in 1977 for the scope of its “world-building,” the two characters the audience is with for most of the first act are named Luke and Ben. We might as well be on a raft floating down the Mississippi, as those names don’t sound Sci Fi at all. Even when the cast starts to expand, and the names get progressively weirder, those at the heart of the story still aren’t all that bizarre.

Han Solo. Again, recognizable English word for a surname, even if it’s not real common outside of smugglers and goalies. “Han” is of course a little weirder (unless you are talking Chinese dynasties), but it is after-all just one simple syllable. There may be an argument as to whether it rhymes with “fan” or “fawn,” but as that is a discussion which can only be resolved through a duel with expensive collectible lightsabers, I’m just going to let it go. Now, Han’s walking carpet of a co-pilot may have a name like some variety of Skoal Bandit (Chewbacca), but that consistently gets shortened to “Chewie,” so no harm, no foul. Finally, Princess Leia Organa. No problem with the first name, as it’s so close to Lea or Leah, though you have to admit that with a certain pronunciation, “Leia Organa” sounds totally like a porn name. But it’s really “Skywalker” anyway, so I’ll give that one a pass, too.

My point, inasmuch as I have one, is that even in what seems from a distance to be the wholly other-worldly narrative that is Star Wars, the main characters still had recognizable names for names, not strings of consonants with some hyphens and apostrophes thrown in. That may be worth remembering when you are hanging a moniker on your own MC. While sometimes abnormal is interesting, sometimes it’s just distracting. Even in the most speculative of speculative fiction, people may appreciate something solid they can grab when the ride gets bumpy.

Oh, and Jar Jar Binks? Proof that even a cutsey-poo name can’t save an annoying character from people yearning for his grisly death.

Now go write somebody,


(Full disclosure: While my own Norothian Cycle mostly follows the exploits of one Tilda Lanai, there is a certain Nesha-tari Hrilamae close to the center as well. Nobody’s perfect) 😉

As always in closing, a real one-star review from a real reader.

“can be summarised as: walking, walking, walking, bit of fighting with orcs, walking, walking, walking, anguish, walking, walking, walking, bit more fighting with orcs, walking, walking, walking.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy


Author: M. Edward McNally

Epic fantasy author M. Edward McNally is a North Carolinian of Irish/Mexican extraction. He has a Masters in English Lit from ISU and Russian/East European History from ASU. He grew up mostly in the Midwest along I-35 northbound (KS, IA, MN), and now resides in the scrub brush surrounding Phoenix AZ, where the scorpions and javelinas play. Learn more about Ed at his blog, and his Amazon author page.

23 thoughts on “What’s in a name, Jar Jar?”

  1. Good post. I agonize over the names of my characters, too, because, since I write fantasy, they cannot be too familiar, but still have to sound like something that feels vaguely normal enough that it suits the character – especially the heroes and the villains.

  2. -grin- I’m so glad you mentioned Nesha-tari in your coda otherwise i would have had to and I couldn’t remember how to spell it properly 😉

    I can’t disagree with your take on names but I might just tweak it a little if I may – using some of your other characters. As far as I know there is no such name as ‘Balan’ and I’m sure that we could argue about the exact pronunciation but I’d be really surprised if anyone had trouble with that name because we have a familiarity with those /syllables/. Same with Deskata. However I still keep wanting to say Shikase instead of Shikashe because the ‘se’ is more familiar to me. So maybe made up names are ok so long as the sound combinations are familiar?

    1. Thanks, AC, and actually “Balan” is one name of a “traditional” demonic figure (also spelled Balam), who is a duke of hell who cannot tell a lie. I kept that much, thought left off two of “Balam’s” typical two heads. 😉 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balam_(demon)

      And yes, I can’t pronounce Uriako Shikashe, either. The samurai character was a little different, in that he is something of an “exotic” even in the world of the story, so his name is a bit outlandish even to the other characters. With Nesha-tari though, I just have no excuse. 😉

        1. I’m glad you did because he wouldn’t be anywhere near as sexy with three! I should probably have included him in my list of sexy villains but I forgot. 😉

  3. Great post! As a fantasy writer myself, I feel that coming up with names of people/places in the world you create is part of the fun in writing in the genre. I completely agree with you, but I know I’m guilty for having a couple “interesting” names thrown in my books.

  4. Awesome post. I’ve always preferred the simple names, even in fantasy and sci-fi, to the unpronounceable ones. I guess it doesn’t take much digging to understand why (Star Wars really being only one of a handful of great examples). Maybe, just maybe, if enough people say it enough times in enough places, writers will get it through their thick little skulls that “Ben” works a helluva lot better than XxxQ’llnop’qrstuv. 🙂

  5. Love it! Yes, nodding head and giggling all the way through.– Thank you- having a bad day and needed a smile.

    I TRY to keep sci-fi names short and easy to pronounce. ie- Dar Meltom- his father is Edward Meltom (human) and his mother, Denrika, is Satiren. Never mind his patch of green hair; long, softly pointed ears, or his brow ridges. Dar’s name is easy to say, easy to type, and quick to read. Other characters are: Parnela, Gwog, Mognath, Krodus, Garnic, and Jartis. Each is rather alien sounding, yet you are right: strangely human in their origin.

    BTW, we still get phone books living here in the country. Although mine is pretty small!

    Thanks for the smile.

  6. Great insight to Sci Fi names, Ed. So much easier for us mystery/romance/thriller writers to come up with names; yes a phone book is a good way and we still have ’em, lol. I am wondering now if my main reason for not reading Sci fi is because of all the weird names that are hard to pronounce let alone read. When I do read a Sci fi, if the name is too hard to read to myself in my mind, I skip right over it then I’m lost in the story and usually don’t finish reading it. In Star Wars it works, so why can’t it work still today in every one else’s Sci fi books? Seriously, if an author uses a long, bizarre, hard to read and pronounce name I’m likely not to read it. Just sayin’ and remember the old ….adage?…KISS!

    1. True that, and of course movies do have a built-in advantage in that you actually hear the name, rather than just blinking in confusion at it on the page. Still, once I started thinking about it, it was funny to realize just how “normal” Lucas kept most of the names the narrative revolves around. Even “Darth,” close enough to “Garth” that it isn’t totally alien.

  7. Great post, thank you! It’s been one of the major reasons I keep pushing off working on my speculative fiction and fantasy novels–fear of creating overly complicated or completely cheesy names…or names that were too derivative from world mythology. I also got into the habit of doing the search for a name just to make sure I’m not inadvertently doing a fan-fic spin on some other work. Twice it turned out that I was remembering names from books I loved as a kid. Slowly though, as the plots and characters form, I’ve been coming up with a naming logic that seems to make sense. This post showed that I seem to be going in the right direction.

    And BTW “Darth” being so close to “Garth” is now giving me the image of the Wayne’s World character Garth transformed into a Sith Lord. Thanks for that. I needed a laugh today! 🙂

  8. Nice deconstruction, Ed, thanks. And here I thought the formula for character names in speculative fiction was to take a “normal” name and change a letter or two. At least, that’s how I’ve been doing it for the past several years….

    I find urban fantasy both easier and harder to write than epic fantasy. Names are way easier. But real-Earth settings require accurate details, lest a reader complain (thank the gods for Google Earth!).

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