THE NAME GAME

When I speak at writers conferences or conventions one of the more common questions that pops up is some variation on, “How do I come up with names for my characters?”

I’ve always struggled to respond this, and I don’t think I’ve ever given a satisfactory answer. I’ve recommended using baby name books (I have one I use all the time); have advised people to think of their fantasy world as a particular real-world region or culture and adopt, say, Scandinavian or Gaelic names; and I’ve even suggested randomly sticking your finger in a telephone book. That’s all pretty crap advise, or pretty good . . . I don’t even know.

But two things have really made me start thinking about this again. First, I have a current work-in-progress fantasy novel, which I’ve mentioned here, and have sat down and come up with a naming convention that I like, but that still needs tweaks. The second thing is that I’ve been doing this weird project where I’ve been reading names of fantasy characters into a pronunciation guide and have been confronted with fantasy name after fantasy name.

One of the students in my continuing education class asked me what I thought of a rule he’d heard in connection with writing screenplays: that no two characters should have names that start with the same first letter. I couldn’t give him an answer since I’d never heard of that rule before, but I pretty much dismissed it. After all, doesn’t it limit the number of characters in your book to no more than twenty-six? Thirteen if you count last names, too? Then I heard that same advice half a dozen times in the next few weeks. Doesn’t that always happen?

When I put that thought together with this other project in which a few of the books had enormous lists of characters—more than a hundred named characters in some cases—which was, in my humble opinion, way too many, it really started the wheels turning. Maybe that rule has some merit?

I want to say up front that I’ve never been much for rules, even if there are a few I stick to—I have to cling to something—and with this naming convention stuff, let’s call these “guidelines,” which is a rule you’re free to break without consequence.

I don’t tend to write books with dozens of characters, but I reserve the right to make my cast as big as it needs to be for me to tell my story. This one character per letter rule coming from the movie business isn’t that odd, in retrospect. There, you do have to keep an eye on the size of your cast. But for a novel, as I’ve said before, the sky’s the limit.

But still, when I come upon rules like this—or guidelines like this . . . whatever—I can’t help but try them on for size. What’s the worst that could happen?

In my notebook for the current work-in-progress I started a new page for names and wrote each letter of the alphabet down the left margin, then made three columns: one for names of male characters, one for women, and one for places. I decided that I would only have one character (either male or female) for each letter, and one place name for each letter.

I still have an awful lot of work to do, populating this book with a supporting cast, and so far I still have fourteen letters for character names unassigned, so there’s hope. I’ve started doing some worldbuilding and kinda went off on a place-naming tear, so I’ve worked my way through all but six letters so far. There’s a chance I’ll have to double up on place names.

I am not allowing this exercise to limit my story or imagination.

I’ll try it, but will throw this guideline/rule in the trash the second something that better serves my story comes along.

So then how am I populating these columns?

My story (so far—lots of work still to do!) takes place in a world with two sentient species, humans, and an elder race that I’m calling the lyPirti. I want these two cultures to be distinct so created slightly different naming conventions for both.

The whole idea is to create names that are unique, that helps this world seem new and fresh, but that still somehow feel like names—they have some kind of touchstone back to the real world.

Going back to my own iffy advice on assigning real-world cultures I thought I’d make my human culture based (extremely) loosely on the Balkans. So I went web surfing and found some names common to the Balkans, and pulled out the trusty atlas for my place names. To give it a bit of a twist, but at the same time a certain consistency, I then made a little chart in which I swapped vowels, so that a in the real world name becomes u in mine, and so on. This led to some good stuff, and a few real clunkers. Easy enough: Toss out the clunkers and keep the good ones. Remember: I am not a slave to my worldbuilding!

For the lyPirti I chose French, and brought a translation app to bear on the issue. This is a race of diviners, a remnant of a more cultured and educated time. I decided that their names should have some meaning, so I looked for translations for words like “See Away” for their divination magic, swapped vowels again, and came up with viorlion.

It feels a bit gimmicky when I explain it like this, and it’s crucial to remember that this is a starting point, not some kind of law. I have crossed out an awful lot of words that were just weird, utterly unpronounceable, or so similar to another created word that confusion would have to result. Sometimes I fudged my rule about what vowel goes where, and changed the occasional consonant to make it sound or read better.

And before anything went onto the list, I said it out loud.

You really have to do this. If you cant say it, assume your readers won’t be able to either, and nothing frustrates a fantasy reader more than talking with a friend about this great new book when that one guy who’s name starts with an X was talking to the barbarian named G-something about the dragon whose name was, like, forty letters long and looked like Sneezingalloverthebuffettable or something like that.

 

—Philip Athans (aka Phelep Uthuns)

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to THE NAME GAME

  1. For what it’s worth, I sometimes leave a character name at only a letter as I’m writing a draft. Once I get a real grasp of who they are, then the name seems easier to generate. In case it’s helpful, a link I have no connection to but find useful for its combination of etymologies, cultural breakdowns, and categories is Behind the Name. All the best with the work in progress, names and all.

  2. beowuff says:

    I would say it’s not so much not having two character’s names start with the same letter as trying to make sure characters don’t have similar sounding names. It’s too easy to confuse a reader if two of your main characters are named Jake and Jack.

    I had this issue with “The Silmarillion”. Too many of the elves had names that were too close together.

  3. Nina says:

    I like the first letter rule, but agree, the similar-sounding part is the second key: i.e. Sauron and Saruman–ARGH! Although that didn’t stop it from being the most beloved fantasy story of all time.

  4. Pingback: Scott Marlowe

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