Creating Names for Fantasy

Guest post

by Gordon Long

Okay, in real life I’m terrible with names. I get introduced to someone, and the last thing I remember is his or her name. I like to think it’s not laziness. I know that a person’s name bears no relationship to what that person is really like. It was chosen for them before they were born, and has had a minor influence on the shaping of their personality. “A Boy Named Sue” excepted. All those prejudices that people have about people’s names are just that: prejudices. So when I first meet someone, I am looking to other clues as to his or her personality.

However, when creating names for a story, the situation is completely reversed. If I’m creating a character to meet my readers, suddenly all those prejudices become really important. I want a name that clicks immediately. If I want a he-man character, I want a name that says so. An evocative name is worth more than a thousand words of description.

There are all sorts of clues and signals you can give that will help to subliminally tune your reader in to what the character is like. The first is tradition. If the name has a hint of an actual mythical figure that everyone is familiar with, that helps. For example, a name that sounds anything like Zeus or Odin will give you leadership and strength, although those are actually difficult to match up without making the opposite mistake, and making a negative cultural reference. Odie, being the loser foil for Garfield the cat, has pretty well messed up Odin. I’ve only heard of one guy in real life called, “Atilla,” and I believe he was a very artistic, cooperative theatre type. Not exactly playing to type.

Another clue that English speakers pick up on comes from our own language’s dependence on Latin, Greek, and French. So for example, any name with “mal” in it is going to be a bad guy. Harry Potter’s nemesis “Malfoy” is no mistake. “Foy” sounds like “fait,” which means “made” in French. Malfoy: Badly Made. Great name, a bit obvious, but, hey, it’s written for kids.

Another point to be remembered is cultural consistency. People who come from the same culture should have names that sound like they come from the same culture. How do you do that with created names? I usually use traits of common real cultures, disguised to some extent.

For example, the Sword Called Kitten series takes place in a place very similar to England in the 12th century, which contained a combination of the new Norman culture superimposed over that of the original Saxon inhabitants. So all my Inderjornian people have Saxon names, and all my Maridon people have names of Spanish derivation (I felt that French names wouldn’t be different enough). The Inderjornian names actually mean something in Old English or Saxon. “Ecmund” comes from “Ec” which means sword, and “Mund” which means hand. He is the Hand who wields the magic Sword. Yeah, I know. Rather obvious. Eirlin the Healer comes from “Eir,”peace,” and Lyn, “guard”. And so on. When I had to come up with a third culture for a native tribe, I jumped to Finland, and used names of towns I found on Google Maps. Very easy!

Last but not least, I pick names that sound good to me, and roll off the tongue easily. I don’t care how you pronounce them, as long as they don’t hold up the flow of your reading. I actually hesitated on “Ecmund” for that reason. “Ec” sort of stops you.

So the effect of this on my writing practice is that I don’t name my characters until the first draft is complete. I start off with Jane and Tom and Mary, and wait until their characters are well developed and I know them like friends. Then I give them appropriate names.

Because until I really know you, your name doesn’t matter to me.

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page. His book, Why Are People So Stupid? is available on Amazon.

Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

14 thoughts on “Creating Names for Fantasy”

  1. Interesting. I subconsciously named my protagonists in ways that line up with their characters, at least the main two characters. Great post, very informative. I’m going to have to remember all of this for my future titles. Thanks!

  2. Fun post; I actually have about 10 different baby-name books because I love browsing for names. I can even sit down and read the phone book and have a great time! I love the idea of using Google maps for names, too–brilliant! In addition, I also take into account the number of syllables, how the first and last names work together and separately. Like you, I want the names to have meaning but I don’t want to be too obvious about it. Thanks for a great post.

  3. Because my characters are dolphins, and so little is known about their culture, I had to dream it all up and so I was free to make the decision to give each character only one name. That simplified everything.

    I used names related to the worlds they inhabited in mind, body and spirit. So my astronomers have names like Cosmo and Rigel. (Rigel is a star in Orion) My lovely mother character was called Pearl after the sea jewel. My musician received the name of Ripple (of sound) since her songs were to ripple out in space and time forever. Her sister whose life paralleled Ripple’s was called Echo, a very appropriate name for any dolphin, since they all live in a world of echoes.The teasing brother was called Rev (he revved them up) and the beautiful older sister in love was called Aroha (Maori word for love, respect and honour)

    My evil character is an eight-tentacled monster whose tentacles each have their own names and personalities. Her name is Erishkigal and the names go like this:

    Erishkigal, Shadow Queen
    Vipa, Venga, Malevine,
    Lucifina, Sadistine,
    Fera, Lashette and Claw-dine.

    It was a lot of fun coming up with that little list, I promise you.

      1. Thanks Gordon, I did have fun with it. It took one entire day to put together the little rhyme with the names. Lucifina is supposed to suggest Lucifer and my racing bike is called Lucy, short for Lucifer or Lucifina, because when I ask her to, she goes like Hell.
        I really appreciate your response here.

  4. It’s always a bit of a gamble. I try to create names that fit the setting and mood I’m trying to create without being too common or too hard to pronounce. It’s a fun part of the process.

  5. I have to admit that I don’t have to work too hard at it, as my characters introduce themselves to me by name (so I guess that happens subliminally). Accept in the case of historical fiction, when I’m using real historical characters; then of course I don’t have to work hard at it either.

    Nice post, Gordon.

  6. Great post Gordon. My aliens started with biology so I had to come up with sounds /they/ could pronounce. Then I had to refine those sounds into something we could pronounce whilst still keeping the alien feel intact. For example the name for the G2 sun is Takh. The actual pronunciation would be like the English word ‘tuck’ but if I’d written it like that it would have looked very strange, maybe even with connotations of ‘Friar Tuck’ out of Robin Hood. Not sure how readers fare with my names [and made up language] but at least they’ll know they’re not in Kansas any more. 😀

  7. Very interesting post! Unlike you, Gordon, I have to name my characters before I can write them. In fact, it is usually a name that sets me off on the story, rather than the other way around. I doubt I could write about characters with boring names such as those at the end of your post (apologies to anyone named Jane, Tom, or Mary!) unless I needed a peripheral character who was ordinary. I also hate reading books where I need to decide how to pronounce people or place names. I don’t care if they sound odd, in fact, the odder the better, as long as my brain can pronounce them the moment I see them! 🙂

  8. I think it’s important that a name not diminish the reality of the story. Your article addresses that. However, there are probably as many ways to come up with names as there are writers of fantasy–it’s a magic thing. I recently read a fantasy set in a medieval-style of culture, yet lesser characters were named “Jimmy” or “Bobby” or the equivalent. This threw me off my reader’s word feed. In a similar manner, dialogue can do the same. When a medieval character says “Okay, bro’,” or “No problemo” or some such phrase–or a commoner writes a note that sounds like a text message–that really disrupts the reality of the storyline. Thanks for the ponderings.

  9. I’m currently reading a story where the author sometimes uses the surname and sometimes the first name and rarely together so I’m having terrible trouble working out which name goes with which surname and the problem is worse because three of the main characters are called Sam, Tom, and Jim. Those names are just so similar my brain is constantly confused.

    1. The biggest problem with reading Russian novels and plays is the “patronymic,” whatever that is. It means that everybody has at least three names, depending on who is talking to them.
      I think this leads us to introduction of characters. I try to introduce characters in a way that makes them memorable: not too many at once, placing them in an important conflict, stating their name a few times, etc.

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