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I find it hard to name my characters. Every normal name sounds funny if applied to a product of my fantasy. If I take a common name, I may get the image of someone I know into my head. And that may influence my vision of the character in a way I didn't intended. If I choose an uncommon name or invent a name (for a fantasy story for example) it sounds silly to me. How do you name the characters of your story?

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Just some comments from a reader's perspective: please, for the love of all that's holy, give your characters names that start with different letters. If one character is Alethea and another is Alexis, I don't care how different they are, I will confuse them in my mind. –  Martha Mar 23 '11 at 13:43
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It doesn't matter whether the name sounds silly at first. With repeated exposure it will start sounding less silly, and eventually will sound like an ordinary name. –  Bruce Alderman Sep 2 '11 at 19:43
    
@Martha So not a fan of Crime and Punishment then... –  sh1ftst0rm Jan 7 '13 at 18:52

20 Answers 20

up vote 45 down vote accepted

So Sméagol, Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins do not sound silly?

Honestly, don't care too much, if they sound silly or not. First, you can change them, second, I've read some great stories with very silly named characters.

If you want make up fantasy names and have no good idea how to start, here is what I do:

  • Find out what the profession/status of this character is (Let's say, he is the elder of a village)
  • Play with this profession/title. Put it in reverse: elder -> Redle - Would that be a good name?
  • Play with the acronym: The elder of the village -> TEOTV -> Teotev? Totav? Teotive? Totiv? Theotrev?
  • Put some accent and apostrophes in it. People love that: Téo'tev, The'òtrev
  • Translate the profession/title into a different language (I prefer Latin). Play with that word accordingly.
  • Well, just play :)
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To add to this, you could always draw a couple letters out of your scrabble bag and jumble them around until you find something worthwhile. –  StrixVaria Nov 19 '10 at 21:23
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Accent and apostrophes give a certain "foreign" feel very easily, but come hardcore fantasy readers are a bit sick of them, so consider the possibility of overdoing it. Some readers like names they can unambiguously pronounce in their heads. Remember, don't pull the reader out of your story by stopping them to work out a difficult name. –  MGOwen Nov 22 '10 at 0:45
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Heh... PG Wodehouse gave his characters silly names almost exclusively: Bertie Wooster, Gussie Fink-Nottle, Cyril Fotheringay-Phipps, Roderick Spode, etc. –  Jason Baker Jan 15 '11 at 20:37
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Strongly disagree about accents and apostrophes. Not popular with this reader. –  Alger Oct 13 '11 at 17:32
    
I'm an avid reader of fantasy, and one thing that takes the fun out of many a book for me are stupid, unpronouncable names. Good fantasy names sound good in either your mother tongue or in English (as a language whose sounds and names everyone is familiar with due to American cultural exports). –  what Nov 11 '13 at 11:32

I find much easier to first imagine the character, see it wading through the planned story-line, get emotionally involved with its (mis)adventures, then I can think a name that matches that stronger image of the character I've built.

If you don't really feel your character alive, it really doesn't call for a proper name (yet). Also it may be easier, for supporting or eventual characters to just give any name, and rename it later, when it gains truer life in your imagination.

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Another writer friend of mine went through NaNoWriMo last year, writing furiously to make her 50,000 words, without naming her characters at all.

Naming isn't easy. Sometimes a character will have a name that fits, perhaps, but often not. If you find it difficult put it off. Don't let it get in the way of your writing. Instead write. If necessary, get all the way to the end of your story. Then tackle the naming problem.

How do you tackle it? Do it with a baby name book. Use an online baby naming resource. Take a name and change it up a little in your head as if you are a parent who simply has to have a unique name for Baby X. Pick the name you always thought you were going to call your daughter until your spouse overrode it. Use the middle name of your friend who least or most resembles the character. Flip through your college yearbook and pick the kid who most looks like your character. These are just a few ideas. There are tons more. Just write. Then name.

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If the characters are strong, the name gets molded to the character; if they're weak, it's the other way around.

"The World According to Garp" makes a pretty big deal about Garp's name - both the word "Garp" and why Garp's mother selected that name play important roles. Nonetheless, I don't think the story would have had a significantly different impact on me if Garp had been named "John". We identify with characters based on who they are - their name becomes a convenient flag for that.

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I've believed this about many logos/titles/names in the past. If it's good, then it's fine. If it's not a good company/product/story, it doesn't matter what it is named. –  way0utwest Dec 6 '10 at 1:11

I don't know why, but I like naming conventions of Post-Modern writers like Pynchon's Oedipa Maas and Dr. Hilarius or DFW's Hal Incandenza.

They're absurdist, but suggest additional meaning which makes them intriguing.

I suppose, though, that naming conventions are tied to genre. An example that comes to mind is that I've seen characters referred to as only a letter in shorter fiction, but that may become tedious to the reader in a full length novel.

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Use variations on names from Ancient history/mythology. Greek, or Norse, or Mayan, or whatever, pick your flavour.

This can give you a very wide variety of fictional names that are still similar to each other (for a rich, "realistic" feel).

Most of my "fantasy world" style character/place names come from my old testament reading.

This is a complete list of Bible place/person names: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_biblical_names

I change them around a bit (try different letters and syllables, to get a different sound).

Examples:
Hale, Marish, Baltasar, Elam, Kir, Addramalech, Sherd, etc

I get some good metaphors too, but I don't have a link to a list of those.

Examples: The Sword Bathed in Heaven, fed their enemies on the bread of affliction and the water of affliction, a shadow from the heat, a refuge from the storm, etc.

The Old Testament in particular can give a very authentic "ancient civilisation" feel to native English readers, probably because of the influence the Bible has had on English speaking culture (including fantasy novels) over the centuries.

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I either use an existing name and change something like adding a letter or swapping two: Boris -> Borsi. Ken -> Kan.

If that fails, I pay this site a visit: http://www.fakenamegenerator.com/index.php

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Try this to put the importance of character names into perspective: Begin with nothing more than a person's name, and then write the story. Does she truly end up typecast as the similarly-named girl you knew in fourth grade? Or does she take on different attributes - do you give her reactions and thoughts fit for the character you're creating? More likely the latter.

Naming your character might be the least important thing you do with respect to what that character becomes and how you (the author) think of her. When the character's name actually plays a role in defining who she is, however, or when the name is representative of something that defines her (such as Garp's name in The World According to Garp), keep in mind that in life we don't usually choose our names: our parents do. Give the charater's father a moment's thought: would he have named his daughter Chaersogih, Purple Sunlit Mai Tai, or Katie?

By the way, take the undue pressure off of your mind about having those corrupting outside influences infect your creative vision. There's nothing wrong with allowing someone you know lend a trait or two to one of your characters. While you're still getting to know the character, go ahead and let the name give you ideas. If you're dead set on who and what she is, the name won't be able to stop you even if it (or if Chaersogih from fourth grade) tried.

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Good advice on the "someone you know lend a trait to your chars". JK Rowling for example has stated on multiple occasions that many of the characters in HP were inspired (that is a great word to know the meaning of for any writer ;-)) by real-life friends and acquaintances of hers. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 10 '10 at 13:08
    
Do you mean "inspire" as in have an idea (or life!) "breathed into" something? That is a good word. Never knew that about Rowling. Imagine reading your internationally famous friend's book and starting to think, "Wait a minute. Is this sidekick me?" –  Dawn Dec 10 '10 at 14:34

No parent takes naming their child as an indifferent thing. Before the baby is even born, the name we give the child is an identity that will stick with him/her for the rest of that baby's life. Or to quote Orson Scott Card: "A name is part of who a person is. It's the label that stands for everything you've done and everything you are." (Characters & Viewpoint, p. 41)

I suggest taking a "parental" role to naming characters - just like a parent doesn't know who their child will ultimately be before they're born, that doesn't stop them from giving the baby a name. An identity. A label that stands for everything they are and have done and will do.

As for how you choose your names, here are some tips that I've found very helpful over the years:

  1. Buy a naming book, like Sherrilyn Kenyon's Character Naming Sourcebook or a baby naming book. There are websites that help with this, too. I prefer books that give meanings to the names (even though a good sound is usually more important than an appropriate meaning).

  2. Sometimes looking for an appropriate meaning to a name can be a starting point. If a character is brave, then looking for names that suggest bravery or heroism in their meaning can be good. But I wouldn't get too bogged down with that if you don't find anything.

  3. Think of a characters nationality and ethnicity. That will almost always suggest certain names and cut off others. If your world is a fantasy world, think of the speech patterns you might like them to exhibit. Are their names more "sing-songy" or perhaps harsher? You can use (altered) real names to create good sounding fantasy names. Russian or Polish might work well for gutteral harsher races, if that's what you're aiming for. Indian / Hindi names are more flowing and pleasing to the ear. Irish names tend to suggest a gaiety that make people smile. These names almost always draw certain images into our minds, certain associations - which can be particularly helpful in establishing a mental picture of the characters.

  4. When you hear names that you like, be sure to write them down. Keep a custom "naming dictionary" for yourself and update it as often as possible with names you like.

  5. If you can't think of a "real" name for a character just yet, then try to think of a single nickname. It might suggest a real name to you. If you do have a real name, I still suggest thinking on whether there are any good nicknames for the character. It adds to their realism.

  6. Vary the first letter of the main characters' names, and try to vary their syllables, as well. If you have two one syllable names, then try not to use anymore of those - go for two and three syllables. That will also help to narrow down the field and suggest other names to you. This makes it easier for readers to keep track of them, and it also makes them more real.

  7. The fact that somewhat more common names remind you of people you know isn't always bad. I have noticed what I think are common characteristics of the Rachels, Jeffs, Mikes, Annas, etc. that I know. I've heard the same observations from others, too. You don't have to copy your friends' traits - but they might suggest some characteristics that you hadn't otherwise thought of.

  8. If you're having difficult getting past the names and the strong associations with people you know, you might try writing a list of every single person you can think of with a given name - friends, family, celebrities, authors, etc. Instead of focusing on their common characteristics (as in #7), focus on all of their differences. Put it into your mind that, though they all share the same name, they are all individuals in their own right - and so is your character who shares that name, too!

  9. If you have a particular personality in mind for the character, you have two options:

    • Choose a name that sounds like it fits. A action powerhouse hero named Walter doesn't fit quite as well as Bruno or Mike. A prim, proper, and beautiful princess would sound weird named Gretchen as opposed to, say, Allegra or Serena.

    • Do just the opposite. Name the muscle strapped action hero Milford, Benedict, or Lawrence. Though, if you do that, it should definitely be something that other characters poke fun at, or is seen as an oddity as some way or other. The name becomes part of the character's identity in a way he might not necessarily enjoy. Think Johnny Cash's Boy Named Sue.

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I especially like the idea to keep a name dictionary. –  Mnementh Dec 4 '10 at 23:46

My advice is to start collecting names in a file on your computer. I've have categories of names that have appealed to me over the years. For example, one of my favorite categories is "computer generated names". Some of them are hilarious: Zhamak Boobs, Parveen Farmiloe, Jimbo Razi, Hercules Hook. I got these from computer generated spam who's 'sender' names were obviously created by a computer program choosing to combine list elements from various lists of peoples names and objects. But I collect real names too.

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One bit to add about names: if you use fantasy names (because you are, like, writing a fantasy story ;-), take care to make them consistent. Meaning names of people belonging to the same race/people/whatever need to sound/feel "similar" in style. Hard to give an example (I'm bad at finding fantasy names myself :D), but... well, if you give all characters that come from the same region of your world names with lots of accents, then it would look weird (and feel wrong) if suddenly someone from that regions shows up and is called "Bruno". Except...

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I wish there was a single reference book for given names from around the world, but I haven't been able to find one. I have a couple of books on my shelves that have been quite helpful:

Concise Dictionary of First Names (OUP) http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780198662594.do

African Ethnics and Personal Names (Ariko) [ new user, so I can only post one link - google it! ]

There are a lot of 'baby naming' websites out there; they tend to be pretty poor quality and unhelpful, but others may have better luck.

As for fantasy names, Tolkien was a linguist (or 'philologist' as they said then), and the reason there is such a strong consistency in the names is that they are part of languages he not only spent a long time on, but applied his knowledge of real languages to them. You can tell when people have taken short cuts.

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Not just names from around the world, but historical names from around the world: Medieval Names Archive –  Martha Mar 23 '11 at 14:00

If setting your story in the real world, be careful of the social connotations of choosing foreign names. In the US, Billy Bob and Chuck carry certain connotations (southern and down-to-earth respectively). Likewise in the UK, Charles and Oliver will have social connotations. If you are an English speaker, you're probably aware of these already.

Therefore, be aware that the same is true for other countries. Eg, Jens, Pierre, Bjorn all have social connotations too. If in doubt, ask a native speaker of the language you go for.

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Critique Circle has a random name generator, but it is more useful for modern stories than fantasy. You can choose gender and change the level of obscurity.

http://www.critiquecircle.com/tools.asp?page=names

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There is a great great great resource for naming characters. It is a random name generator you can choose the influences and the origin of the name and each name has a meaning when it is generated. A real meaning. All names come from most of the cultures that inhabit our dear planet.

On the same page you can search for names according to meaning and/or sex.

Another technique for inventing names is just cutting a word you see in half, example:

I just saw the word community so I cut it to the piece I like the most like Munity or ity.

Then I take another word I see, for instance answer, and cut it, ans or wer or we.

Then I produce the name, result: Itywé you can always put an accent to make it fancy. But as everything don't abuse it.

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I find it helpful to research the names. If your fantasized world is similar to an existing country, find out what language they speak and try those names. If your fantasized language sounds like an existing language, do the same thing. I have found that names always fit the characters better if their origin is similar to that of the character.

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You asked how "I" name a character. I create my character and give him/her a name that fits the social and geographic location of the character. It's like picking names for children. You just do it.

I've heard that some people use a phone book. Some these days use a name generator. I have one friend (unpublished) who visit cemeteries.

If you are really having problems you might be over-thinking the problem.

If you can create a story I'm amazed you can't create names for your characters....

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Looking at cemeteries is a good idea. –  Mnementh Nov 18 '11 at 9:40

This is an interesting article about using markov chains to generate realistic sounding character names http://www.dgames.org/markov-chain-name-generator/ in this case it generates Hindu and ancient Greek names but the same principle can be applied for whatever. Also there are any number of baby name sites that I use. You can look through names of certain origins.

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Wow, great find. That could work and should be simple to implement. –  Mnementh Feb 5 '12 at 10:15

Two commonly recommended strategies for character naming are the perusal of popular names lists and looking up the meaning of names. Both aren't very useful.

If you have to look up the meaning of a name, your readers won't know it either and it won't influence their perception of a character.

And popular names aren't always perceived as positive. For example in Germany the name Kevin is one of the most popular and widespread names, but it is chosen mostly in low income families and has become associated with ADHS and low performance in school. So much so that teachers show prejudice towards pupils with that name, as research has shown.

But what can you do?

I am German, so the names I use as a writer are German. A research group at a German university has researched the associations that people have for certain names: how old do they imagine an Alexander, how intelligent is a Julia, how attractive a Ben? The research is still limited to a small selection of names and attributes, but it is a valuable starting point.

One German website lets users judge names and gives top 50 lists for attributes like intelligence, attractiveness, age, masculinity/femininity and several character traits: http://www.onomastik.com/Vornamen-Lexikon/

If I want to use a name that has not been researched, I ask friends how they imagine the person with that name. I was often surprised what negative associations people have for names I like. Some names sound fat, others unfriendly.

Maybe there is similar research for names from your culture?

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What I’ve done for names:

  • Browsed a nice thick baby-name book, which is organized by ethnicity.
  • Looked in Wikipedia for a list of names of the appropriate ethnicity. For example, if a certain character is descended from Haitian immigrants, I might look up the membership of the Haitian national legislature to get a sense of what last names are common there.
  • Checked the US Social Security Administration’s most-common-first-names database, which is organized by gender, state, and birth year.

If you’re trying to come up with names for a fantasy world, I suggest coming up with some phonology for a language in your fantasy world, and then generating a bunch of words that match it. (You can add flavor by creating multiple languages with different phonological rules, or by imposing a rule that the pattern of sounds communicates something about a character’s gender or status. In Mindy Klasky’s “Glasswrights” series, for example, the higher a character’s caste, the more syllables were in his or her name.)

I agree with Martha above that you shouldn’t give different characters names that start with the same letter. (Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has an Arthur and an Art, but I think Chabon was just showing off.)

And one other tip: full names sound better if the first and last names have a different number of syllables.

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I disagree with your statement about symmetrical syllables, and I think many of the most iconic characters from both classic and modern works would side with me on this: I mean, there's Jane Eyre, Jake Barnes, James Bond, Bilbo/Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Holden Caulfield, Harry Potter, Ronald Weasley, Draco Malfoy, Luna Lovegood, Peeta Mellark, Finnick Odair, Effie Trinket, Edward Cullen (He counts), Arthur Radley, Owen Meany, Billy Pilgrim, Patrick Bateman, Clarissa Dalloway... Even Jay Gatsby's real name was James Gatz. If that doesn't count, there's always ever-popular Scout Finch. –  Cmillz Mar 14 at 18:39

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