Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Character Names

Even in fantasy, names of people and places should sound consistent and believable. While this may come easy to someone like J.R.R. Tolkien who was a linguist and knew dozens of languages, to use mere mortals it's a far more daunting task.

In my contemporary fiction that I've written, the names have generally come easy. First names that is. If I ever needed a last name, I'd simply flip open to a random page ofThe Dictionary of Surnames, and scan for a name that appealed.

Fantasy becomes a much uglier beast. I have a spreadsheet on my computer to keep track of the significant name changes to either person or place. In one fell swoop, one day, I re-named several of the important side characters and every major location name for the country it all takes place in. Including the country's name!

My general strategy for coming up with names is to either get on baby naming websites and go through the database willy-nilly or to open baby name books to random pages and look for a name to jump out. On occasion I do go to fantasy name generator sites and look for names that way.

So what are your strategies?

*In celebration of my blog's 2nd birthday, I'll be re-posting some old favorites from the archives during the month of November.  The original post from July 9 2009 can be found here.


  1. One of my favorite ways to look for names--especially last names--is to read through the credits for movies and TV shows. Lots of variety there. Great post!

  2. Fantasy names are very difficult. I actually do several things that are really kooky. I take a word that is a personality attribute for my character-like photography, for instance. Then scramble the letters and see if a name jumps out at me. I have also looked up the root of a word (like light) to see if its Latin origin word is a good name.

  3. For contemporary names, I'll use baby naming websites a lot.

    For fantasy, I like to find names with specific meanings that can be related back to the character. I'll look up names based on origin, and their meanings and go from there.

    I agree, it's much more difficult to come up with names for fantasy!

  4. Blah, I usually pluck names out of my head until one sounds right. But then I end up with similar names...I need a better naming convention.

  5. I'm currently writing a sci-fi which requires some unusual names, too. I'm very fond of seventhsanctum.com for its loads of name generating engines for all sorts of genres. But I have lots of fun picking names for characters, planets, cities, species. I even had to name a illegal hallucinogenic drug!

  6. I like to say that my characters "introduce" themselves to me. A lot of times I'll start writing and then I'll just end up typing a name and ta-dah! that's the name.

    It isn't until the main characters in my stories have names - full names - that I can really get going on a project. Right now I've got 4 different wips, 1 is almost done, and the other 3, I've been waiting for SOMEONE to introduce themselves so I know which wip to work on next ;)

  7. I remember this post. I needed an Irish surname one time, so I went on a bunch of Irish websites. Other than that, though, I typically just pull them from friends of my kids.

  8. And remember even Tolkien had to change his characters names a few times. Frodo was originally Bungo and Strider was originally Trotter. ;)

  9. Happy second birthday to your blog! :) I love this topic. I'm like you, I scour baby name lists for my characters' handles. Sometimes I name them after people in real life. It's tricky to pick just one though!

  10. Okay, I seriously don't know why I wasn't following your blog. I swear I've been here before...

    Anyway, Hi! I'll be happily cyberstalking you now. Dun dun dunnnn. :)

    And I loved this post, because I struggle with names. I'm completely indecisive, and I'm also big on not naming characters after anyone I know, (avoids drama--I'm mean to my characters) so names can be a PAIN. But I do a lot of what you do. I'll also spend a lot of time googling random things I associate with the character and see if anything strikes my fancy. I've found some cool names that way.

    Have a great day!

  11. When I was writing epic fantasy, I wanted the names of people and places to have a certain linguistic consistency without obviously looking like a particular modern language. So I first did some research on how languages naturally change over time, like which vowels tend to switch to other vowels and which consonants frequently turn to what other consonants. Then I looked at names in a modern language that had a sound I liked and thought appropriate to the story. I took the names and broke them down into syllables and made a list of these. Then I took the list of syllables and changed the vowels and consonants in ways that fit the most common linguistic changes. It's very common, for instance, for 'r' to become 'l'. I then added the mixed up syllables to the list, added meanings to all the syllables, and played 'mix and match' until I had names I liked.

  12. Sometimes I use a book of magical names and pick based on the meanings. I'm looking forward to writing a more urban fantasy where among other things I don't have to struggle as much with the names. Interesting discussion.


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