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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10 Responses to “How to Invent Names for Your Genre Novel”
Yes, finding an appropriate name for a fictional character is not easy.
That is why I chose to write a non-fiction, travel account as a starter, Its not finished yet, only about sixty pages to go, and if that is ever published, I’ll start on the novel I’ve had knocking around in my head for a couple of years — when I finally find a suitable name for my protagonist.
I am always having troubles coming up with names for characters. This is a great article, thank you! These tips are going to be way more helpful for future writing. I especially liked the tip to use scrabble tiles or refrigerator alphabet magnets. I don’t think I ever would have thought of that.
Good article, Mark, although I would have liked to see you lean less heavily on technique (which, for me, can be a bit hard to follow because they are only ideas and concepts) and more towards actual examples illustrating the techniques in use (I deal better with concrete objects than with intangible ideas).
Much of my writing is set in the here-and-now (United States, Earth, early 21st century) and so my characters’ names aren’t usually hard to plot. The main caveat is that they be realistic without being cliche or overused (ex. John and Mary, Smith, etc.). One way I pick a character’s name is to find a trait about the character (tone of voice, habit, general attitude, physical attribute, a quirk in their attire or grooming, ethnic heritage, profession, and so on) that reminds me of a character in another book, play, movie, etc. If the established character’s name would fit my newly-created character and what I plan them to be and do then I may grab one of their names (Brosky, Ditka, Denver, Coleman, Charles, Bohannon, and such).
Then, of course, there’s always the local phone directory. Open a page at random and blindly put your finger on the page — there’s the character’s first name! Do it on another page for the surname. You may have to repeat this a few times to get a name that fits your character and that feels good when you say/write it, but it’s a simple and effective tool.
Ah, thanks Mark, this really helps. Names have always been an issue, but this will certainly make it much easier.
Mr Mxyzptlk. That’s the superman villian you are talking about. All comics have, at some point, given a crude pronunciation scheme to his name. And more than that, superman’s job seems to be getting the nemisis to pronounce his own name (backwards too, sometimes) to ge rid of him.
That reminds me of the problem Chevrolet encountered years ago, when the car we in the US knew as the Nova had to have a name change in Latin/Spanish countries, because there, “nova” (or “no va”) means “it doesn’t go” LOL
And slightly off topic, maybe, but related to Elspetha’s comment, is the impression of the reader, especially younger ones who don’t have much exposure to world cultures, names and pronunciations, etc. In Jean Auel’s books, for example, the main character’s name is Ayla. I had never heard it pronounced, and in my head it sounded like a long A. Months after I read it, a friend of mine mentioned it, and she pronounced it as if it began with an I (EYE-lah). And in “Pillars of the Earth,” the name Aliena also left me kind of puzzled. In English, the word “lien” is one syllable, so in my head I heard her name as “ah-LEEN-ah.” Later in the book, when her brother calls her by her nickname, Ali, it occurred to me that maybe her name was pronounced ah-lee-EHN-ah.
These are fantastic ideas … but please also think of your reader. I recently read an otherwise very good novel that had so many alien names (of individuals, family groups, clans, countries, objects, and professions) that it distanced me from the plot, characterizations, and settings.
On one hand, I respected the time spent by the author, imagining and building the novel’s world. However, a judicious editor (or a series of prepublication readers) could have pared down the uniquely crafted names–persons, places, and objects–to essentials, which would have improved the reading experience tremendously.
Mr. Mxyzptlk is the superman villain you’re thinking of.
Also a good technique for making names and/or words is to simply speak nonsensical words until you come up with something you like. You can more freely play with words. For example, I might say Blog, but not really like the /g/ sound. So, replace it with some other sounds. Blorg, Bloss, Bloff etc.
If I’m still stuck, I can go down the alphabet and replace it with letters and digraphs.
I think one need look no farther than good ol’ Star Wars to see this in practice.
“Solo” evokes ideas of outlawry and the loner.
“Skywalker” seems to evoke light and goodness.
“Darth Vader” was derived from Dutch words meaning “dark father” (so I’ve read). So should anyone have been surprised at the end of Empire Strikes Back?
Leif G.S. Notae
Ah, very cool. I always enjoy coming up with names these days now that I can sort of listen to the characters and the settings. Another thing I usually do is get a dictionary from a different language and look for the spelling for the word I think applies to them, switch a few letters to make it more “name” worthy and off I go. I think every character from the last 6 months or so I have created came from this process and I am very happy with it.
Great article, everyone should have this handy whenever they are writing their fictional pieces.