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How can I invent names for fictional characters in a future-setting Sci-Fi story so they won't be connected to any existing culture?

I considered the following options:

  • Invent some random names. This has a disadvantage in that such names are often difficult to pronounce and sound unpleasant and unlikely to be used by people.

  • Use names from some obscure languages. This makes a connection to Earth's history and is difficult to explain, given that these cultures have already vanished now, not to say in the future.

  • Use names from some Classical languages such as Latin, Greek, Proto-Indo-European or similarly-sounding ones. This does not make sense if we are speaking about non-human cultures. Take for example "Stroggos" and "Makron". How on Earth can an alien nave have the Greek ending -on?

What are the advantages and disadvantages to these techniques? Are there other options and techniques that could help me?

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Just don't go with something like G'thnurg'tndr, it's become almost a cliche in Sci-Fi. –  Tannalein Dec 22 '12 at 19:43
    
This is a bit of a list question, a bit of a discussion question, and also a duplicate of a question that was closed for the same reasons. Closing. –  Neil Fein Dec 22 '12 at 19:58
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@SF - Looking at it now, I think that the main problem with the question was its chatty, discussion-forum-like tone. Have edited to remove this and reopened. –  Neil Fein Dec 25 '12 at 7:56
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Possibly related: Coming up with names for species in fiction –  Michael Kjörling Dec 25 '12 at 13:55
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Hey, I wasn planning on naming my next son G'thnurg'tndr. Where did you get the name? –  Jay Dec 27 '12 at 5:38

8 Answers 8

One further option is to have the aliens adopt "earth names" as part of the plot because their (non-verbal) method of identifying individuals is incomprehensible to mere humans. Perhaps their species all vibrate at a characteristic base frequency and each individual has an unique overtone.

You can then make the decisions made by the aliens about appropriate names form part of the explication of the characters.

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Wherever your characters are from they will have their own culture and their own language. It's pretty easy to come up with some random names for characters but if you have more than one character then the naming construction for each should be similar, with similar syllable count and length. If they have a culture that respects class hierarchy then they may have other standards that append to their names to denote house or clan affiliation or just family name. For example it's common among Dutch people to have a name that is [someone] van [somewhere] like Vincent van Gogh - the 'van part just means 'from' so it means Vincent 'from' Gogh (bear in mind I'm not Dutch but you get the idea!) and it can also be spelt van de, van der or van den and it pretty much means the same thing.

Your character names have to have a common construction and it should be based on some sort of culture and language construction, even if the reader never actually gets to know about it. Also, once you have decided on a language construction it becomes much easier to write dialogue for those characters because it will be based on the language they know - even if it's not their language they are speaking - in the same way that I can often spot a non-native English speaker by sentence construction, even if the words and context make perfect sense.

For more on language construction try this guy: http://www.zompist.com/kitlong.html

Hope that helps.

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I can add some hints: create basis of language which complements the nature of the speakers. You'll find peaceful Czech language much, much softer than experienced by war, neighbor Polish. French, Italian and Spanish are similar but Italian is more "loudly expressive", and Spanish is essentially fierce, mirroring the national temperaments. –  SF. Dec 26 '12 at 15:47
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If you write a story about some Dutch guys and everybody is named van Something, that will appear pretty ridiculous ;-) –  what Dec 15 '13 at 11:59

You want names that are entirely alien to us? Let me share a story - interestingly, an entirely real story about a species with most unique names.

Learning these names is within grasp of humans, although communicating them by anyone else than given name's bearer is nearly impossible.

The species is the horse, and the names are the scents of their breath.

You will sometimes see horses "sharing breath". They put their noses close, and exhale and inhale deeply. This is a friendly "How are you" in their language, and simultaneously getting accustomed to each other and introducing yourself. If you, a human, decide to get on "more personal" level with horses than "owner-pet", you'll fairly easily get them to greet you that way. Share breaths with a horse, feel the scent and marvel how unique they are.

So, one bears dry, cold, tomb-like emptiness. Another is summer herbs of a sunny meadow. Yet another is the scent of a frosty, midwinter day, another - sweet fruit, or a dusty road, or deep shade of forest, or stale midsummer river, or dry warmth of hot sand.

These are true names of horses. And understandably, you can't really copy these, tell them to someone else as given horse told it to you - you'd have to hold their breaths. So, humans use various silly substitutes. But smart humans will give their horses names similar to their true ones. The one with tomb-like emptiness was called Pharaoh, and the one with herbs of sunny meadow - Fairy Tale.

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Disclaimer: I've written two non-fiction books. I'm presently struggling through my first novel, which does not include aliens. So I'm speaking here more as a reader than as a writer.

As Tannalein says, I'd avoid making names that are unpronouncable. One could make a logical argument that an alien race would have an alien system for making sounds, and so may well have names that humans can't pronounce. But even if it's arguably more realistic, it makes the story hard to read. The trick is to make them strange but pronouncable.

On the other extreme, of course, you don't want your aliens to be named Fred and Sally. You could borrow from other languages, but if a reader has even a general familiarity with that language, it will be just as odd. Better to invent something.

My suggestion would be to invent at least the rough outline for a system. You don't have to invent a complete language, just sketch out a few general rules.

Like: Invent an alphabet, preferably including at least a couple of sounds that are not common English (assuming you're writing in English). Like include a sound "xh" or "jb". Don't make it too bizarre or it violates my advice about pronouncability, but make it odd.

Think about the pattern of vowels and consonants. Like if one alien is named "Tolon", another named "Fiemar" sounds plausible. But "Tolon" and "Frangmatuplen" don't look the same, because the vowel/consonant pattern is too different.

Think about length. Having one alien named "Tal" and another from the same plantet/race/whatever named "Brumaxnologoran Frambar Huvangtran" would seem distinctly odd.

Many human languages have a pattern to the names, like many names end in "son" or start with "Mc". Maybe have your aliens have a few common endings for their names. You don't need to explain what it's supposed to mean, just do it. You might even work something relevant to the plot into the names, like the elite all have names that end "-axlon" while the mechanics all end "-tanak" and the warriors all end "-brufarl" or whatever. But I wouldn't go out of my way to work something like that into the plot. If it falls out naturally, cool. But don't force it.

In general, whatever system you come up with, it isn't necessary to explain it to your readers unless it matters to the plot. Personally I always like science fiction stories where there's a lot of "background" that isn't fully explained. It gives the feel that this is a real world with a history, instead of a simplistic cartoon created just to sustain this one story.

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(a) Human languages are often unpronouncable to people that don't speak that language. You don't even have to go so far as click sounds in African languages, even French is difficult to pronounce correctly for most Americans. They always sound like Americans speaking French. So unpronouncability is not an argument against a name, but against its readability for an audience. (b) There is no reason to invent a language sound structure. Just take the language of your readers and invent non-existing words that might exist, i.e. that follow the rules of the language. Bingwold. Bab. Duffnick. Rogit. –  what Dec 15 '13 at 12:04
    
Human languages unpronounceable to each other: Sure. But I think that fits into my point. When we write, say, Arabic words in English, we often put "q" or "kh" for that sound we don't have in English, and accept that it doesn't convey the actual sound of the original. Unless your point is to learn Arabic, it's not worth the trouble to bog down the conversation with wrestling over the alphabet. That's what I'm suggesting we do for an alien language: Sure, they might have sounds not found in English, maybe even sounds that humans are incapable of making. But it's not worth bogging down ... –  Jay Dec 16 '13 at 15:05
    
... the story to go into some long discussion about how to make these sounds, or to throw in combinations of letters that are unpronounceable but that are supposed to represent these alien sounds. Unless the fact that the language is unpronounceable by humans is actually a factor in the plot. –  Jay Dec 16 '13 at 15:06
    
My point about "inventing language structure" was just that there should be some level of consistency to avoid making it jarring. Like I said in my post, in general you don't want half the aliens to have one-syllable names and the other half to have twenty-syllable names, unless there is some reason why different groups have different kinds of names. Otherwise it's going to sound strange to the reader with no explanation. I'm not suggesting you actually invent an entire grammar and vocabulary. That seems rather unnecessary. –  Jay Dec 16 '13 at 15:09

I'm assuming, from your use of the word "people" instead of explicitly referring to aliens (not that they can't be people too), plus your explicit mention that some/all current Earth cultures will have vanished by then, that we're talking about future humans.

I think that the others have given some excellent advice, but I just wanted to add that in my opinion, you don't necessarily need to come up with completely new types of names, that aren't tied to any current culture. This is for a few reasons:

· While technology such as the Internet, even today, is greatly accelerating the rate of dispersion of memes and other information across previously largely disconnected cultural groups, it also serves to preserve certain things. Thus, for example, people will be watching "African Queen" on their computers and media screens practically forever, unless civilization in the large undergoes some cataclysmic reboot. Thus not only will people be exposed to American English as spoken in that movie (and all the others from a similar period and the same culture), but the names as well; some future people may name their children "Charlie" because of it, just as people imitatively name children today.

· This technological fixation can be expected to extend even more to systems of symbolic representation, and computers which store and track personal information will of course for all time be far less susceptible to transcription errors than handwriting was in the old days.

Thus especially if the customs for last-name transmission remain the same for a significant portion of society, it's not entirely out of the question that someone would be named "Bill Smith", and (when he chose to vocalize, if ever) pronounce his name roughly as you just heard it in your head, a billion years in the future. Certainly other cultures and traditions would arise over so vast a time, and would probably outnumber the ancient forms by far, but they would also have been influenced by them to some degree. I find it more likely that many languages and pidgins would contain little snippets of at least half-recognizable sounds from today, than that all cultural influence from today would have vanished.

I will update this if I think of a good example, but one approach I've seen in some cases to naming is to take some recognizable forms from today, and apply various degrees of changes to them to indicate the passage of time. Thus instead of "Bill Smith", a writer might name a character "B'yll Smit". That sort of thing always seems labored and cheesy to me if not done with an extremely fine touch.

In any event, I think that your task, which depends on how far into the future your story is cast, is not really to make everything seem completely different from today's world, but rather to determine how much of today's culture remains, morphed though it may be, and what sorts of new changes and additions have occurred. So you'll need some techniques for generating new-type names that are believable in light of your future culture(s), and you'll have to think long and hard with how that meshes with the remnants of today's cultures, in light of the history that will have happened in between. The question is not just what will have happened to isolated splinter cultures, but what happened with the ones that weren't isolated but still evolved.

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Human names are often extremley alien. Think of bushman names with click sound. Or think of French names and how unhappy your French teacher was with your desperate attempts at pronouncing them correctly.

It is not the strangeness and unpronouncability of a name that make it non-human. So there is no reason to attempt that. You are not writing for historcial accuracy. You are writing for your readers. A character name must make sense to your reader, within the frame of reference of your reader's mother tongue. This includes foreign languages the sounds of which your reader will be familiar with.

For example, for an English speaking reader, the frame of familiarity is English sounds, alienness is signified, to differing degrees, by Spanish, French, Irish, German, Scandinavian, Slavic sounds.

So if you want to invent a SciFi name for someone from the home culture of your protagonist, you use English sounds. Make up a non-existing word that adheres to the rules of the English language, and you got your name: Bilbo. Ged. Katniss. [Oops, didn't know "katniss" was the name of an existing plant. I thought that was made up.]

If you want to invent a SciFi name for someone from an alien world or race, use sounds from a language not native to but familiar to your readers: Elrond. Tehanu.

That way, the reader can read, pronounce and remember the names. They sound good. And they sound uncommon enough to be from the future or the otherworld.


Also, take note of the naming tradition of your genre. Fantasy names are very often Celtic or Norse, because the mythology that much of fantasy is based on is from those cultural contexts. SF names are often much more mundane, because they extrapolate current culture into the future.

You don't have to follow those conventions, but you should be aware of them and what it means if your elves have African sounding names, or your aliens sound somehow Asian.


Some authors on how they find character names:

These character names should be banned forever:


In "Dreams must explain themselves", Ursula K. LeGuin explains that she chooses character names whose sound is meaningful to her. I do the same. In the language that you are writing in, certain sounds will evoke certain characteristics, of people or things. This begins with the fact that male and female names are different and certain sounds, or sound combinations, are more prevalent (or popular) in male or female names. Other sounds sound hard or soft, bright or dark, elegant or quick, and so on. So what I do is define my character and his or her personality, and then get a large enough sample of possible names and select those whose look and sound fit my character best.

For my current SF novel I needed the name of the human female protagonist. I wanted the name to feel and look slightly exotic, but still familiar and not completele strang. It should be acceptable as a name today, maybe look like a future variant of a common name, sort of like Jula to Julia. So I downloaded the list of 40.000 names, deleted all the male and male/female names, and then scanned the file, deleting any names that I did not like.

This is faster than it may sound. I scroll the file and soon realize that I do not like the sound and look of names beginning with "V", or "Zh" or "J", so I can delete whole ranges of names. I don't like names ending in "drun" or "ise" (because they have a certain feel in my publication language), so I do a regex search with grep within TextWrangler to search-and-replace those names with nothing. I delete all names beginning with the same letters as other character names. After an hour of systematically deleting names with sounds or letters I find unpleasant or unfitting to my character description, I'm left with 173 names. I take another hour to look at each name, try to imagine my character with that name, and if it does not fit, I delete it. I'm left with 35 names that might fit. I google for images of persons of that name, and pick the name with the most pretty representatives. After half a day I have a name that feels perfect to me, if only because it is based on a selection process that leaves me satisfied.

I don't usually cast my characters (i.e. find images of real persons to represent them), because then I start writing the character to fit that person, but if I'm beginning to get confused during the name selection process, and all names start to feel equally fitting or wrong, I find an image that represents the most important characteristic of the character (e.g. the secret weakness or the final new identity) and open that image alongside my list. Then I match the names to that image. Later I delete that image and return to my own (and changing in the course of the plot) mental image of my character.

A powerful core sentence from the story outline (e.g. "She cut his heart out.") works fine as such an anchor also. I paste it into a separate file and have that open beside my list, so I always see. Then I compare the name with that sentence, sort of like a mathematical equation: does that name equal that sentence?

Lina ≠ "She cut his heart out."

Anu, Aive, ... = "She cut his heart out."

You can use anything that for you represents the core of your character: a piece of wood, a certain food, an activity or hobby, or a landscape, where she lives. Compare the look and sound of the name to this, and feel how it fits.

Depending on the type of story I want to tell, I use lists of names or lists of words (from different languages) to find my character names. I ususally don't make up new words, because I feel lost in the endless space of all possible letter combinations. But while I scan my lists, I might sometimes feel that a slight change to a word or a different representation of the same sounds will make the perfect name for me.


If my characters have first and last names, I always find the part of the name first that I will use for most of the novel. If the story is about a teenager and I and the other characters will refer to her by her first name, I find her first name first. If the story is about a politician and I and the other characters will refer to him by his last name, I will find the last name first. I'll then google for that name to see what first or last names it is often combined with, to get a feel for that. Often I just pick one of those names that come up, or make up something along those lines. I don't torture myself much over the part of the name that only rarely appears in my text.

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You cannot create names with no connection to any existing human culture because... you're human. What I gather you're asking is more along the lines of: How do I select names that don't sound too obviously connected to one specific language (or language group)?

At a basic level, anything you come up with is going to sound like something, or it's going to sound like crap. If you string together a few consonants and call it a day, there's always gonna be someone who thinks, "Hey, that intergalactic warlord's name sounds a lot like the Azer word for 'sneeze'!" That's fine. In fact, it's better than the alternative.

Think of your readers. Are you thinking primarily (or exclusively) about speakers of your native language? Also, is that language English? This makes a big difference. Honestly, almost anything sounds alien to native English speakers. If you pick a language that's "obscure" to English speakers, most readers may accept it as alien.

If you want to go with the stringing-together-consonants thing, try to form an idea of the kind of phonology they use. Readers notice implicitly if all Skarokii have names full of hard consonants and most Endaara have names with soft consonants and lots of vowels. If most of the male characters have personal names ending with an 'a', no reader is going to mistake them for NASA astronauts.

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Constrained Randomness. One fun trick is to take a bunch of names from one or more cultures with lexically interesting names, then generate random names that are different but lexically similar.

The Gibberizer. I created a free (and open source) tool to do generate such lexically similar names: The Gibberizer. It's a little old, but it still works just fine.

The idea is this: You give The Gibberizer a bunch of text (e.g. names), and it gives you back a bunch of text that is lexically similar to the text you gave it.

You can fiddle with some of the input parameters, such as how similar its output should be to your input.

Different but similar. Because the generated names are lexically similar to the ones you entered, they are more-or-less pronounceable, and reasonably familiar-sounding. Because they are random, they can sometimes be weird. You can adjust the weirdness.

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