How to Invent Names for Your Genre Novel
You have a great concept for a science fiction, fantasy, or horror novel, but when it comes to crafting names of people, places, and things you’ve invented, you stumble. Fortunately, it’s easier than you might think to assign identities:
If you’re a world-building writer — you are creating a fully realized realm with discrete cultures and languages — construct names so that they are clearly distinct from those of other locations and consistent with others found in the same areas. If you want to suggest parallels with cultures and languages here on Earth, choose names that will evoke them without imitating them — think of letter and sound combinations, the preponderance of various vowel pairings and consonant blends, and whether words tend to be curt or complex.
Use names that convey a feeling: Guttural consonants suggest belligerence, cruelty, and evil in people, and harsh, hostile weather and topographical features. Multisyllabic, mellifluous monikers make one think of benevolent people and beautiful places. Let the name of a person or a place suggest personality or ambience, or physique or geography.
Do names in your invented culture consist of one word, two words, or more? Does this number vary according to social class, or are words similar to royal titles built into names to signal social status? Do surnames in the culture identify trades or skills, equivalent, for example, to Taylor and Smith? Do people use different forms of address depending on relative social standing?
Think of how surnames in different languages, especially those stemming from Indo-European, have elements known as particles: Latinate languages, for example, have Le, La, De, Du, and the like, while German and Dutch have Von and Van and Gaelic has M’, Mc, and Mac as well as O’. What particles might your characters’ language have, and why do some names lack them? (A note of caution: Apostrophes are overused in fantasy fiction, sometimes to an absurd extent. Use them judiciously or not at all.)
What does the name mean? When reusing a particular syllable, take care that it is appropriate. For example, if twell means “river,” the syllable shouldn’t appear in the name of a valley unless the valley’s name means “valley of the river.” And if names are similarly constructed — sharing a syllable or a pattern of two or more words — those people or places or things should share a common culture or language, but make sure you don’t have too many similar names, or ones that begin with the same letter.
Note that on the planet we come from, people who speak different languages have different versions of names for people (Paul vs. Pablo) places (Germany vs. Deutschland), and things (wine vs. vino). Sometimes, words are adopted into other languages, and sometimes they’re not. There’s no reason the rules for the world you build should be any different. Keep in mind, too, how languages evolve (and sometimes become extinct): The name sprawled across a 1,000-year-old map of a kingdom will likely differ somewhat from the name used in the present time. Spelling changes should be consistent with others in the story: If a topographical name’s vowel shifted over time from e to a, then a character’s ancient near namesake probably spelled their name with an e, not an a.
To create new names, take a name or another word from English or another known language and change one letter or consonant blend, or replace one or more syllables. Don’t hesitate to assign truncated or diminutive forms of names (equivalent to Jon, from Jonathan, or Timmy, from Timothy), or nicknames. Also, one or two names out of many might replicate or closely resemble names in known languages, but more than that will be distracting.
Use Scrabble tiles, magnetized letters, or alphabet blocks to spontaneously form words, or type random letters until a likely syllable or entire word is generated. Alternatively, if you’re the cheating type, or these suggestions don’t work for you, search online for a random name generator.
Even in a fantasy realm, names need to be realistic. Superman had a nemesis whose name I can’t even type (or search for online) because it consists of a string of consonants that defy my efforts to reconstruct it. The idea was that the villain was as annoying and contrary as his unpronounceable name suggests, but characters must be able to articulate the words you invent. Remember, somebody christened each person’s name, and some society bestowed each name of a geographical feature on that place and on each practical object within it.
The final step, before inserting a name into a story, is to do an online search for it. If another author has already used the word, or it ends up being the Romanian term for slime, alter or jettison it.
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