I work with a lot of young/aspiring authors and time and again I find them suffering over the subject of naming characters and places. Placeholders abound, names from other works like the Forgotten Realms or Game of Thrones start to sneak in, or sometimes they just fall back on real world names so you get something almost as clunky as Sir John Johnson or Nancy, Queen of the Witches.

Choosing the right name for your characters and the places they inhabit is one of the many hard parts in the bottomless sea of hard parts that is writing fiction—and science fiction and fantasy in particular. It’s a bigger subject than one post, so when I had an opportunity to be a part of the Writer’s Digest’s Fourth Annual Science Fiction & Fantasy Virtual Conference this coming weekend (my bit’s on Saturday the 21st) I jumped at the chance to finally tackle the name question in greater detail.

I really hope you’ll be able to be there, and ask questions, but either way, if you are struggling with names,  I have dived into this pool here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook a few times:

The Name Game

This one focusses on one oddball idea for changing vowels around—but it’s mostly about trying things and keeping names that work and throwing away the ones that don’t.

Lester Dent’s Wave Those Tags

A series of posts that dig into some long-lost advice from our favorite pulpster. Like his plot “formula” there’s some good advice here surrounded by a few odd turns. Use with care!

Please Stop Using Initial Caps as a Substitute for Creativity

Find and destroy those placeholders—and do it as soon as possible. Even if you didn’t intend them to be placeholders. This is the must-read of the bunch since it’s something I’m seeing practically all the time.

Read, Think, Repeat

In this post I outed myself for my tendency to take notes while reading. In that spirit, I circled this passage in Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune as an example of a story reason behind a generic or “placeholder” name:

The stir as they came down and circled over Sheeana’s Desert Watch Center awakened her.

Desert Watch Center. We’re at it again. We haven’t really named it… no more than we gave a name to this planet. Chapterhouse! What kind of a name is that? Desert Watch Center! Description, not a name. Accent on the temporary.

As they descended, she saw confirmations of her thought. The sense of temporary housing was amplified by spartan abruptness in all junctures. No softness, no rounding of any connection. This attaches here and that goes over here. All joined by removable connectors.

This example will make it into the additional material for my newly revised online course Worldbuilding in Fantasy & Science Fiction, which starts up again on July 26, but tends to run maybe every couple months or so. I added a whole session on geography that deals with naming both places and people. Here’s a little taste of that from the course material:

Otherwise, in more exotic settings it may actually be best to simply string letters together that sound interesting. But even then, be cautious of your readers’ ability to track new words. If character and place names are more than three syllables long, you might want to rethink—if they’re more than four syllables, please do. Also be as clear as you can in regards to pronunciation. This might seem like no big deal—until someone gets the audio book rights and a poor beleaguered narrator has to figure out your goblin names, none of which include vowels because you thought it would be clever to decide that goblins hadn’t invented vowels yet.

Yeah… guilty as charged.

Or, you can just take an existing name and add -onius, -ainous, or -anous to it.


—Philonius Athanous


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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 Writing Monsters. 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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5 Responses to WHAT’S IN A NAME?

  1. Deborah Jay says:

    Reblogged this on deborahjay and commented:
    SF and Fantasy virtual conference – check it out.

  2. Hey, Philonius, is that you rocking the Han Solo vest?

    ~Ichabodainous Temperancium

  3. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writers Links | No Wasted Ink

  4. Pingback: Pronouncing Names & the Meaning Behind Them, Plus How does Gail Choose Names? (Occasional FAQ) - Gail Carriger - Gail Carriger

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