Naming your characters

It’s a long-standing joke that Fantasy writers make up names for characters. If you look on the internet you can find a dozen fantasy name generators. Nowadays almost every how-to on writing fantasy nowadays warns you not to do this, and books like Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide To Fantasyland poke fun at the names people create.

A weird array of names in your story is generally the sign of an amateur.

Because of this, I have always been very conscious of naming my characters. Early in the piece I, too, made my names up. Then I realised that it was a ‘bad thing’ and started using names from nature. Like River, and Blade. (In some people’s eyes this is another ‘very bad thing’, but when it’s done properly I love it. Robin Hobb does it well with Dutiful and Swift and Web and all the others.)

Even so, you can really only use this method in a small number of books—unless you’re writing a series, that is.

One thing I have always done is trawled the baby name books. I love them.

For a time there I tried to theme my names. In one story it would be Celtic names, so I’d choose Rhiannon and Grainne, say. In the next I’d use Scandinavian names, Axel and Britta.

No matter how I chose my names, I tried to keep within what I would call the current accepted practise for naming fantasy characters

  • If you do make up names, make sure they’re pronounceable
  • Don’t have too many weird and way-out names in the same book
  • Don’t have too many names that sound similar
  • Don’t give all your main protagonists names that start with the same letter
  • Don’t mix your language of origin. For example, if you choose Greek-based names then all your characters should have Greek-based names.

It’s this last point I have some issues with.

Recently I’ve had a bit of an epiphany with names.

  • Our last couple of books have been science fiction and in these I tried to make the names modern, not too way out, but still a little science-fictiony. I have thought a lot about how names might change over four of five hundred years.
  • Names go in cycles. According to Behind the Name the top five boys names in the US today are Jacob, Michael, Ethan, Joshua and Daniel. The top five girls names are Emma, Isabella, Emily, Madison and Ava. In the 1950s it was James, Michael, Robert, John and David, and Mary, Linda, Patricia, Susan and Deborah.   I know that when I went to school a name like Emily or Jacob was considered old-fashioned. We felt sorry for the poor kids saddled with such ‘old’ names. Recently I was speaking to a younger man (late teens or early twenties) and he was trying to guess my name and my sister’s name, just based on the initials. His first guesses were wide of the mark. “You’re a generation out,” I said. “Go back a generation before.” Interestingly enough, he then got both names on first try.So if I was choosing a name for a science fiction character I should probably think of old-fashioned names first and make a modernised take on that, rather than choosing a name that is currently trendy.
  • I look at the phone list at work sometimes and I would love to use some of those names for my characters. Yet if I did—whether it be for science fiction or fantasy—many readers and critics would think it a hodgepodge of names. We’ve got English names, we’ve got Russian names, we’ve got Indian names, we’ve got Asian names. All mixed together in one glorious mix of people. Sangeeta sits next to Simon who sits next to Yu who sits close to Evgenyia.
  • Choosing names based on a particular language or civilisation makes sense, but only up to a point. It makes for a cohesive story world, yes, but it also binds you into a pre-defined place in fantasy. Your readers expect it too. If I see names like Grainne and Rhiannon and Caitlin and Bree I am expecting a world based around Irish/Celtic myth. If I see Demi and Leonidas I’m expecting a world based on Greek mythology.Maybe that works for you. For me, I don’t want people to come to my fantasy with expectations of what it’s about. I don’t want people to come to my stories already knowing the background. I want them to find a whole new world that they haven’t seen before.

So I have decided. It’s back to just picking names I like, no matter what the name’s origins. If the name sounds interesting and fits my character, I’m going to use it. And if I end up with a phone list of names from all eras and all parts of the world, I’ll be happy, even if it does make me look like a rank amateur.

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