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Writers have to name a lot of characters. Coming up with the right names is tricky; some writers are better at it than others. Let’s look at how they meet the challenge.
If you’re writing a contemporary story, you’re in much the same position as a proud parent—except that you know how the person turns out, and you can pick a name that carries the implications you want for the character. Dickens can name one pleasant pair the Cheeryble Brothers and a less prepossessing soul Scrooge to underline their personalities, in case the reader needs to be hit over the head with a sledgehammer to get the point. Not all authors have to be quite so explicit about it.
There are plenty of baby-name books and pamphlets to suggest character names, as well as sites like Behind the Names, BabyNameWizard, or Nameberry. The pamphlets have become a bit more international over the years: today’s versions contain names from more countries and languages than they used to. This can help us avoid what you might call “WASP Name Syndrome,” in which all the names tend to be blandly Anglo-Saxon.
Consider, for example, early super-heroes, who tended to have white-bread names like Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Bruce Wayne, Barry Allen—not to mention the compulsively alliterative Marvel characters like Reed Richards, Peter Parker, Sue Storm, Bruce Banner… We see at least a little more cultural variety these days, even if it’s still hard to shake the alliteration, as with the current Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan.
We’re still in pretty familiar territory when we visit the realm of the historic, or faux-historic—legendary figures living in real or imagined ancient times. In the Arthurian tales we get ordinary-sounding names like, well, Arthur, as well as less common names (at least at this point in history) like Lancelot, Galahad, Tristan and Isolde, which may at least be familiar through repetition. An author who wants to be (perhaps) historically more accurate as well as exotic can go for Celtic-style spellings: Bedwyr instead of Bedivere, for example. I’ve seen such imaginative renditions of “Guinevere” that you can get halfway through the book before you realize who the author is talking about. (“Gwenhwyfar,” anyone?)
We can do the same thing in F&SF—name our hero Luke, our wizard Ben, pedestrian names like that. We may want the effect of the plain, traditional name for a particular character—for example, to suggest homeliness or familiarity. (“His real name is Obi-Wan, but I know him as Ben.”) This is fine if the story is set, say, twenty years from now, when you’d expect names to be relatively unchanged. But it’s harder to justify—to make believable—if we’re thousands of years in the future, or in a completely separate alternate world, as with much heroic fantasy.
Note that this can also be true in SF: Star Wars looks futuristic, but we’re clearly asked to dissociate ourselves from any specific connection to the present when we’re told, “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away…” The curious reader is likely to wonder, how did these people happen to come up with exactly the same names we use, even without any common (recent) history or heritage?
In Zenna Henderson’s stories of The People, refugees from another planet come to Earth and struggle to fit in. The stories are excellent, but the names sometimes give me pause. In a story set on the home planet, before they’ve had any contact with Earth, the characters have names such as David, Eve, and Timmy—as well as the less familiar Lytha and ‘Chell (Michelle?). Why so similar to common Terrestrial names?
Or take the hobbits. Alongside Sam, Bob, and Rosie we have characters like Frodo, Bilbo, Meriadoc and Pippin. Tolkien, the master linguist, can explain this—exhaustively (see Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings). From a narrative point of view, the name-mixture gives us a sense of earthy rustic culture, but also of something a little different from Merrie Olde England. Tolkien succeeds by being both quaint and quirky.
I’m less sympathetic to George R.R. Martin, who seems determined to give his characters in A Song of Ice and Fire names that are mostly familiar, but misspelled. If we’re going to have people named Eddard, Catelyn, and Rickard, why not just call them Edward, Cathleen, and Richard—or are we expected to believe that languages in Westeros evolved in almost exact parallel to ours, but not quite? (I have the same problem with the pseudo-Latin spells in Harry Potter—if you’re going to use Latin, just do it, don’t fake it—though I read an article by someone who’s examined Rowling’s quasi-Latin more closely than I and is more forgiving.)
Inventing Fantasy Names
If we’re going for traditional semi-medieval high fantasy, we may want names that are somewhat familiar, but have an antique ring to them. How do I come up with a fitting title for the mighty barbarian I just rolled up for Dungeons and Dragons? There are a number of tried-and-true approaches. As it turns out, TV Tropes has a gallery of naming tropes that cover much of the territory (there’s a list-of-lists at Naming Conventions).
A descriptive name picks out some distinguishing feature: Erik the Red, Catherine the Great. Or Charles the Bald, or Pepin the Short, if I’m aiming for humorous or mundane rather than grand and dramatic. If we don’t like “the,” we can fix on a name like Blackbeard. Or Bluebeard. (TV Tropes summarizes the pattern as Captain Colorbeard.)
Naming someone by place of origin (especially in place of a last name) also has a healthy yeomanlike sound to it. I fondly recall a sturdy D&D character I named John of Redcliff. A lot of ordinary last names, like Lake or Hill or Rivers, probably started out that way. If the background allows for it, we can vary the effect by using French (de) or German (von) or other languages’ equivalents.
Occupations also gave us a lot of familiar last names. “William the Farmer” (to distinguish him from the three other Williams in the village) easily becomes “William Farmer.” Some of these are less obvious than others: we may not recall that “sawyer” is what you call someone who wields a saw.
Names that indicate one’s parents—patronymics and matronymics—occur in many languages. The English have their Josephsons and Richardsons, the Russians their Petrovs and Ivanovnas.
Scorning these expedients, we can also strike off into the unknown by inventing a name purely from scratch, just for its sound. This can produce semi-random results—but not entirely random, since speakers of a given language will tend toward combinations of letters and sounds that “make sense” in their language. TV Tropes’ Law of Alien Names makes some interesting observations about how writers in different genres often approach name generation.
A doctor friend of mine, feeling he wasn’t up to the task of coining a lot of names, used a novel expedient in his D&D campaign: he used the names of drugs. This strategy works surprisingly well as long as you stick to obscure pharmaceuticals, which often seem to have been named by plucking letters out of the air (“erenumab”) or by phonetically respelling a chemical term (“Sudafed”). On the other hand, a fierce warrior character named “Xanax” is going to create some cognitive dissonance for those who know the term in question.
A Variety of Effects
Different writers take different approaches to naming, which contribute to the distinctiveness of their worlds.
At the extreme end of systematic invention stands Tolkien, who once said that he invented his stories and realms only as a place to put his invented languages. His names add noticeably to the integrity of his imagined world; they hold together so well because they really were derived from a number of separate, fully-developed languages. We have a pretty good idea whether a name is hobbitish, elven, or dwarven from the sound alone.
Or take Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom (Mars) stories. Martian heroes and heroines (especially the heroines) tend to have relatively graceful names: Dejah Thoris, Gahan of Gathol (a place-reference name), Carthoris, Llana. Male supporting characters and savage green Martians are tougher-sounding: Tars Tarkas, Mors Kajak, Kantos Kan, Xodar. Villains’ names are still less graceful: Phor Tak, Tul Axtar, Luud, U-Dor. There’s no clear linguistic background for the names, but there’s enough commonality to give us a sense that Barsoomian nomenclature does hold together on a cultural basis.
The far future of SF writer James Schmitz yields a completely different style of naming. Rather than being mellifluously Elvish, like Galadriel or Aragorn, or barbarically guttural, like Tars Tarkas, Schmitz’s names strike me as quintessentially American: with a contemporary English sound and a sort of casual feel—yet unfamiliar enough to remind us we’re not in Kansas any more. Recurring character Telzey Amberdon is a good example. “Telzey,” with the diminutive –ey ending, sounds like a nickname somebody today might bear, but as far as I know, no one actually does.
This laid-back style is characteristic of Schmitz’s Federation of the Hub. The names have a familiar contemporary sound, but they aren’t actually familiar. The first names also tend to give few gender clues—which might be related to the fact that Schmitz stories often featured strong female leads. Nile Etland and Heslet Quillan, along with the single-named Captain Pausert and Goth of The Witches of Karres or Iliff and Pagadan of Agent of Vega, all sound like people we might run into on any street—until we bypass the familiarity of sound and realize we’ve never heard these names before. The names give Schmitz’s stories a unique feel.
We can see how the names help establish the mood and ambiance of a story. It says something about The Lord of the Rings that it contains both Gandalf the Grey and Freddy Bolger. As with other aspects of worldbuilding, the names contribute to the “willing suspension of disbelief” when they help us feel the believable solidity of a consistent background—even if it’s a consistency that includes species or cultural variation.
TV Tropes lists a number of ways anomalies can crop up. There’s “Aerith and Bob,” where familiar conventional names are mixed in unaccountably with unusual ones. If a particular character’s name is unlike any of the others, we have “Odd Name Out.” Using a mix of Earthly languages as sources for names gives us “Melting-Pot Nomenclature”—which may be justified if we envision a future in which today’s nations and ethnic groups have intermixed, as in H. Beam Piper’s future history.
The most thoroughgoing way of establishing a solid background for your names is Tolkien’s: invent your own languages. But few of us have the time, patience and talent for that kind of detail. In practice, we don’t need to go that far. It’s possible to do the same thing on a small scale by starting from the grass roots: come up with an interesting name or two and decide to emphasize certain sounds or forms for that language’s words, inventing the rules and common elements (like “de” or “von”) as we go along.
However writers may go about the business of naming, we can appreciate the distinctive flavor given to their stories by how they choose names for their “children”—and if we’re so inclined, we can try out that creative wordplay for ourselves.