Part 3 of the series Creating a Fantasy World
The names you use in your story are sometimes those that people will long remember, even if the plot of your story becomes fuzzy in their head after years. Who will ever forget names like Harry Potter, Winterfell, Middle-earth, or Eragon? Or how about names used in classic literature, such as Oliver Twist or Huckleberry Finn?
A good name sticks with you and a good name gives a certain feel to a person or a place. If I tell you about two towns, one called Evildome and one called Faeglade, you will immediately make some assumptions. Maybe they are incorrect, but that’s not the point. The point is that the names should be loaded with some substance other than being a combination of letters that no one else had thought of before.
So, what can we name in a story?
- Places (world, continents, cities, areas)
- Fauna and Flora
- Abstract concepts
When you think about the names in a new world, one thing has to be taken into account from the beginning: the names cannot be confusing. You must keep track of all that you name and be sure that names are not similar, not only in writing, but also in speech.
Names of places
When you are naming places that are in each other’s vicinity, follow these rules:
- Limit the number of names starting with the same letter
- Avoid almost completely having names starting with the same syllable or group of letters
- Avoid too many names of a similar length
- Avoid too many names that are very long
- Limit the names containing dashes and apostrophes
- Try to avoid having names that rhyme
There’s one exception to the last one and that is when the rhyming is done on purpose to signify a group of places that are related. Think: Westchester, Eastchester, Manchester, or Hiburgh, Loburgh and Middleburgh. You get the point. When it looks like the similarity between the names is done on purpose, and actually serves a purpose, it is okay. When it looks haphazard, it doesn’t sound good.
The next thing to keep in mind is the type of place you are talking about. Two major distinctions are sci/fi vs fantasy and within each you have sub-divisions. Take some examples:
Xycoon vs Kyrandia
You can argue either way, but the first name does sound more sci/fi whereas the second one sounds more fantasy.
To find names for sci/fi places you should probably turn to technology. Names of engineering things will convert well into sci/fi names. For fantasy, you will probably look into religious and spiritual items and objects and try to convert those into names. Also for fantasy, looking into history will provide good inspiration.
When it comes to naming characters, the same rules apply, but the first rule should be taken more seriously: make sure that none of your main characters and even those less important, do not have names that start with the same letter, or are otherwise similar. This will confuse the reader, especially in a complex world. Here are some examples of bad combinations:
- Rick and Dick
- Sam and Sid
- Toby and Cody
When selecting a name for your characters, try to make the names age appropriate. I know it sounds silly– after every person goes through all stages of life, so the name should apply to all ages. But, still, we associate certain names with old and others with young. So, it’s all about finding an age appropriate name for the character at the time of your story.
Which ones of these feel young and which ones feel old?
- Dana / Esther
- Jenny / Abigail
- Raya / Ephronia
This is not something to go crazy about, but keep it as an ace in your sleeve, something you use to provide an additional flare to your character.
The next thing is trying to give names a meaning. Be careful though, don’t be too overt or it will wind up sounding silly. A scientist named Atom or a knight named Arrow will ring comical. Try to be a bit more subtle.
The other side of the coin is also valid: avoid names that are already too loaded with meaning and will detract from your story by forcing people to make assumptions. For example, don’t name your characters Ophelia, Brutus, or Saddam.
Using generally accepted bad/evil words as root for villan names, and good/positive words as root for heros is a good idea, but again, you must do it subtly. Think about Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. You almost don’t need to see the movies and you can still almost “feel” the character from the name.
Naming of Flora and Fauna
I cannot think of a lot of good reasons why you would name plants and animals differently, except when you invent brand new ones. There will be a chapter on Fauna and Flora, but when it comes to naming them: keep it simple, unless it is an important part of the story. If you start re-naming the entire animal reign, you will regret it later. Every time you name something, you have to explain it. Even if you explain it, readers won’t remember it right away. If there are too many of these, the story will start to be a difficult read.
If people are riding in your story, let them ride a horse, unless it’s very important for the story that the animals are not horses, or that your horses have eight legs. If you just want to add spice to your story by having some sort of magical steed called Gapherion, make sure it’s worth it and it’s somehow related to your plot. Otherwise, the readers will sense that you are trying to hard to make your world different. Remember: just naming things differently doesn’t make them different. A simple talking horse or a walking tree will be stronger than a talking klimpazoo or a walking dimpledary. That’s because now the reader can focus on the supranatural power of something that he/she is familiar with. Changing both the name and the feature might have less of an impact.
Naming of Objects and Abstract Items
This is where you should really let your imagination go wild. In fantasy and science/fiction stories the world is usually filled with unusual items and abstract concepts. Sometimes the objects are integral to the story, for example: Holcrux (Harry Potter), Lightsaber (Star Wars), etc.
Obviously, these names should be unique, unless you rely on concepts that have already been defined and work in your story as well. For example, nobody will mind terribly if you use “phasers” in your sci/fi story. But even if you use an existing name, make sure you give it a fresh, new feel. Maybe the shape is different? Maybe the result of using it is different? Just find a way to make it ‘yours’. However, do steer away from concepts that are too much related to something very specific. Some readers won’t like if you use the “lightsaber” because that is too much indicative of a Star Wars Universe. So: be fresh!
When it comes to character names, you’ve probably heard this one a hundred times before: use a baby names database. Keeping with that tradition, my favorite place to go is: http://www.babynames.com/
Besides the baby names database (or book), there are also a few websites out there that will help you generate names. Most of them have cool selection features, such as name length, name type and so on. Here are my favorites:
- Fantasy Name Generator – http://rinkworks.com/namegen/
- Seventh Sanctum Generator – http://www.seventhsanctum.com/index-char.php
- Fantasy Name Generators – http://fantasynamegenerators.com/
- Dragon’s Mark Name Generator – http://www.dragonsmark.com/names.php
- Behind the Name – http://www.behindthename.com/random/
- Name Generator Fun – http://www.namegeneratorfun.com/
In addition to this, if you are using the popular Scrivener software to write your fiction, the program has a very cool name generator embedded in it. Another free software to generate character names is Bad Wolf’s Character Name Generator, available for free at this url: http://www.characternames.org/.
So, as you can see, there are a lot of places to give you inspiration. But that’s just it: inspiration. Don’t forget that these tools are available to everyone in the world. Chances are if you discover a cool name somebody else probably had already used it. The last thing you want is to publish the “Legends of Iskandar,” only to discover that a book was published two weeks before where the main character is also Iskandar.
Therefore, what you should do is use the websites here for inspiration, but then add your own twist to it. Change a letter, reverse two letters, add something. Make it yours!
When it comes to anything other than character and places names, the stage is wide open. A way to look for interesting names is to get your hands on a multilingual technical dictionary. If you are lucky you will find a comprehensive one, but normally you would find them specific for medicine, finance, etc. The way they work is they have the word in English followed by the translation in various other languages.
Scout the words in other languages and look for interesting sounding words. Don’t use them as is, of course, but use their root to create something that you need. Perhaps you can use the English to locate the proper concept, then look for the way the word is spelled in other languages and go from there.
Of course, not all object and concept words must be completely made up. You are also free to use regular words, but combine them in an interesting manner. Think of these: Wheel of Time, Spear of Destiny, Dragonstone.
How Do You Track It?
Just like we discussed in the language section about a dictionary, in the name section you will have a glossary. Create headings for each letter of the alphabet and put all the names under each letter. If you want you could make this glossary manually, in Excel or any similar table-software. But there’s an easy way to do it automatically:
Create a new Word Document and add a table with two columns. On each row type a name in the first column. In the second column give some description for that name. Select each name one by one and mark them as an index entry (In Word 2010 this command is under References -> Index -> Mark Entry, or Alt-Shift-X). At the end of your document, after a Page Break, insert the Index (In Word 2010 this command is under References -> Index -> Insert Index). Now Word will automatically create your alphabetized glossary for you.
By doing this you will be able to look at all the names under each letter and figure out if any of them are too close in look and sound.
This word document can become the name idea pad for your world. You can brainstorm new concepts, name them, and track them here. That’s why the description column is important too: it will let you memorialize what the concept or object means. Later on, when you want to use the object, you can look in this table.
The name glossary is also important to help you make sure you do not repeat names when you don’t have to. For example, if you create a character with a less unique name, like Frank, and use that character in a unique setting, you don’t want to use another Frank in a different story in a different setting. This becomes particularly valid if the first Frank is a very memorable character. If someone reads both stories it is not unexpected for them to assume that we are talking about the same Frank. Of course, the story itself might make that clear, but why add the additional reader confusion?
On a general note, make sure you are always equipped with a notepad or other note-taking mechanism. (As a writer, you should always have that anyway.) Then, every time you stumble upon an interesting name, or an interesting word that has the potential of being a name, write it down. Keep an ongoing name database and try to organize it a bit. Maybe keep separate sheets for long names, short names, male names, female names, fantasy names, sci/fi names and so on. When you have some downtime (do you ever???) spend some time on the name generating sites and grab a few for your database. It will be very useful later on when you are pressed for time. I make a point to generate three to five new names per week.
Also, remember that once you locate a cool name, you can always use that name as a root and extrapolate other names. Usually you do that by altering the beginning or the ending, like:
Harlin, Marlin, Karlin, Sarlin, Harlick, Marlick, and so on.
The more names you have the better you will juggle your creativity when you are looking to use them in your world.
This concludes the second chapter of this series. Hopefully once you are finished with your work you will be in the same spot where I am with my world. To see what I’ve done, click on the link below:
Creating a Fantasy World Demo – Part 3 – Pending
Last, but not least, please comment below and share your ideas on names in fiction.