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A Character By Any Other Name -- by Rick Ellrod

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.

The Familiar

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.

Kamala Khan, Ms. MarvelConsider, 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?)

The Semi-Fantastic

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?

Pilgrimage - The Book of the People, coverIn 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.

Llana of Gathol, coverOr 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.

Telzey Amberdon, coverThe 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.

Posted by Rick Ellrod 15 Aug 2018 at 00:24
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Responses to this blog

Geoff 16 Aug 2018 at 22:30  
Well, Rick, you’ve hit on something most of us haven’t given too much thought to — character names, the choice of which, I think, tells the reader a lot about the character of the author.

Take, for example the iconic Philip Marlowe. Why did Chandler choose that somewhat odd moniker for a detective who gets beaten up several times per novel? Well, for one thing, he was educated at Dulwich College, a British public school (in the U.S. it would be called a private school) and became a British citizen; I don’t think he wanted his character to come across as a tough guy; he wanted a name he could identify with. Anyway, Philip Marlowe is a great name for a detective for the simple reason that it doesn’t sound like a detective’s name.

Maybe that could be made into a counter-intuitive rule: If you want to show you have class, don’t give your main character a trite name that pins them to a certain role or type.
Rellrod 17 Aug 2018 at 02:25  
Good point!. In fact, a name that contrasts with the character's identity can be striking for exactly that reason. The case that comes to mind is Candy Smith-Foster in David Palmer's Emergence: she's a young girl, so the sweet and slightly juvenile "Candy" seems to fit — but at the same time she's a genius and a high-level karate master, formidably smart and competent. Her name thus comes across as faintly comical, just because of the incongruity.

Grumpybull 17 Aug 2018 at 18:10  
What I hate in character naming is when an author uses a punny name. Like Chuck Wendig has a series with a character named Atlanta Burns. Or another had someone named Priscilla Presley—but not THAT Priscilla Presley. Hardy har har. And I think there's another series where someone is named Jack (or Jackie) Daniels—like the whiskey. I find it irritating and distracting, not fun.
Troglodyte 19 Aug 2018 at 14:46  
Great article. Have you ever tried to read a novel where several of the character names started with the same letter. Maddening!

Rellrod 19 Aug 2018 at 18:36  
Trog — Agreed. You'd think I could keep more than the initial letter of a name in my head at a time — but when major characters are named, say, Paulina and Penelope, I feel as if I have to keep double-checking to see which is which.

Lariverrat 22 Aug 2018 at 03:34  
Some writers go overboard on making up names and you are reading along and get stuck trying to figure out how to pronounce the name and it distracts you from the story line. Mentally most people need to be able to get a grasp on what they are reading or have a hard time getting past it. In these instances I end up either speed reading and skipping over the names, or set the book aside if there are too many to try and figure out. I learned early on that if you want to make your story read smoothly then you have to make your made up names quickly pronounceable every time you see them. I deal in sci-fi and fantasy and it is a fine line. My peoples' name fit the planet they originate from, but I make sure they are not overly complicated. I want people to enjoy the story I have written instead of trying to pronounce names and made up languages.
Mrbillyd 22 Aug 2018 at 13:53  
Choosing a name that fits a character seems thoroughly unrealistic. What can you know about an actual person in the real world, just by hearing his or her name? If it's a German name, or Italian name, or Greek name, or Spanish name, etc.; all you know is where his or her ancestors came from, maybe more than one hundred years ago.

Even then, the name might be misleading. Such as the name Goldberg, which "sounds Jewish". However the actress Whoopie Goldberg "Sure don't look Jewish".

I remember when I was in junior high school, there was a substitute teacher actually named Miss Meany. Imagine that. A substitute teacher named "Mean-ie"? Then in high school I remember a math teacher named Mrs. Failey. "Fail? ie?" Mrs. Flunker? Both ladies were named to the task? In fiction those names would be comical. In reality, you'd better not laugh at your teacher's name, or she might become a your own "Mrs. Flunker".

Then a member of my church was an elderly German immigrant, whose first name was Rolf. He actually grew up in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and fought in the German army. Now some writers might give his name "Rolf", which does sound like a dog's bark, to a very sinister, evil villain. The actual man I knew with that name, was one of the most warm hearted, kind and generous people I've ever known. I considered myself fortunate to regard him as a friend.

When it comes to characterization, the name of the character should be just his or her ID tag. What the character with that tag does and says is what matters. At least in my writings.
Rellrod 23 Aug 2018 at 01:31  
Pronunciation is definitely a consideration. I try to make sure that even odd, alien names can be pronounced based on their spelling. And if there's an ambiguity or unclarity, I may clarify it by having the point come up in the text: "'They called that world Glerredh?' Aleestra, like Ariane, correctly pronounced the hard th at the end of the second, accented syllable."

As to fitting the character — Sure, in real life names are quasi-random: the naming parents don't necessarily know what the child will eventually be like. But a writer has to take into account both the conscious and the subliminal effects of the name on the reader. If I call the character "Joe Hitler," it's going to be hard for the reader to dissociate the historical reference from the character. (A writer might do that on purpose if the point was to keep the reader conscious of the reference — for example, by way of contrast or incongruity.) If the character's name is "Rolf" — which actually sounds sort of cuddly to me (like a friendly dog), except that I'm reminded of the Rolf in "The Sound of Music," who was a Nazi, albeit a conflicted one — then the author should be aware of whatever Rolfish associations a reader is likely to have. Which, of course, can be quite idiosyncratic. (For instance, I rather like "Deborah," but for one of my D&D players, it happened to be the name of his ex.)

It's useful to keep in mind that this is an author's issue, and not something you can run the other way in real life. If we actually meet someone named Rolf, we need to try and free ourselves of associations, good or bad, to the extent they'd prejudice our view of the person.

Geoff 24 Aug 2018 at 13:59  
‎Let's take a look at the names Thomas Harris chose for the characters in “The Silence of The Lambs”:

Hannibal Lecter. It’s possible to envisage that Dr. Lecter’s parents were classicists but it’s more likely Harris chose the name because it echoes the good doctor’s eating habits. The tension between these two possibilities keeps the reader (or viewer) on edge.

Dr. Frederick Chilton, head of the psychiatric ward where Lecter is held prisoner. The name is a cold name, fitting for an unscrupulous psychiatrist.

F.B.I. agent Clarice Starling. She is an emotionally insecure and vulnerable young woman. The name suits her perfectly.

 Paul Krendler, Starling’s nemesis at the F.B.I. The name sounds German, perfect for a villain. In the movie “Hannibal” Lecter serves him his own brain — sauteed.

Jack Crawford,  Starling’s mentor at the F.B.I. I think I would trust someone with this name (Like "Starling" it's English).

Like all good writers, Thomas Harris gave a lot of thought to the names he chose for his characters
Beorckano 24 Aug 2018 at 15:26  
When I built the societies in my fantasy world, I used a geographical analogue of Earth for a setting; same coast shapes, same mountain ranges, so on and so forth, with a few artistic liberties taken for climate and whatnot (think of it like Earth during an ice age). I also drew from classic societies on earth for cultural aspects, like borrowing heavily from Greek and Roman cultures for my main kingdom, the Scandinavian cultures for the northern kingdom, Persian and Arabian for my culture set in the Nevada Desert area, and Maori and Hawaiian for my islanders.

This gave me lots of names to pick from that gave a distinct feel for the culture; I use a lot of Latin, German, and Maori names, while I haven't really touched on many Persian names yet. I scroll through baby name archives in the first letter that popped into my head to start the name with, and I find the meaning of one that seems plausible. If it seems like it works well as a character name, I go ahead and adopt it.
Brandon Cornwell, author of the Dynasty of Storms series
Rising Thunder
Storm's Break

Rellrod 25 Aug 2018 at 02:25  
Beorckano — I follow just that process often, when I'm looking for a general-purpose (non-fantastic) name.

Jewells64 25 Aug 2018 at 12:50  
Your characters' names should be memorable while not being too cute. A lot of the good ones are taken. Perhaps the best pair was Rhet Butler and Scarlet O'Hara. And who can forget Ashley Wilkes? Giving a character an unusual name without being outlandish is a challenge, and some of the nerdy names can fit nicely. Roland, Oscar, Felix, etc. In the Odd Couple, I think Felix Unger's name was chosen for a single joke, when Oscar said "It took me several minutes to figure out that F.U. stood for Felix Unger." Anyhow, it's a privilege that goes to the author, and he should have enjoyment—-even fun—doing it.
Sunami 25 Aug 2018 at 21:01  
Rick, I found your article enlightening and agree with the above comments. I do have one additional insight when it comes to naming a character.

In my first novel, I needed a villianess and gave her the name of one of my bitchy ex-coworkers. This backfired: (1) For a 72K novel, I repeatedly remembered a person I despised. Kind of masochistic on my part. (2) My villainess had no redeemable aspects because I couldn't see past the name. (I've worked through this and have no animosity for the real individual.)

With my current novel, "Talk Talk" I again have a villianess and chose not to make the same mistake. This time I gave her the name of a supervisor I admired. What I discovered was no matter how much I disliked my villianess, I could not make her 100% bad; she actually had some vulnerable elements.

To see if my theory worked, I was beta-reading a romance novel of the main female character attending speed dating. The three guy read as boring and one-dimensional. I suggested temporarily naming each guy with a man the author admired. This author sent me the revision and these once one-dimensional guys now exhibited depth.

Regarding sci-fi and Fantasy, I get the need for more elaborate names, but until an author has a specific name in mind, why not temporarily name that character after someone you personally know. Later, the character's destined name will appear.

Hope this helps.
Waterman 26 Aug 2018 at 00:48  
I agree with the comments of all above. It seems to me that a few naming styles and principles have not been addressed. I won't dwell on Russian literature, because I'm pretty sure that, those of us who are not Russian, have all struggled somewhat with those names. Ditto for Spanish, Asian, etc. What I'd like to throw into this ring are three features of character naming that I feel are essential to writing fiction and historical non-fiction. The first is, does it sound like a name actually given by parents or taken as a credible personal name change? Dweezil and Moonbeam, notwithstanding (grin). Next, is the derivation suitable to the character's personality. Which version best suits the character for your story. Benjamin, Benny, Ben or BJ? Third, is the rhythm of the writing. Too many syllables , or too few, in a character's name can cause a reader to hesitate or pause at precisely the wrong time, especially within dialogue. IMHO, Shakespeare was a master of naming his characters to match the rhythm of his dialogue.
Regards to all,

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