Writers search for the ‘right’ names for the people who populate their books (or, they should!). There are many resources available for finding everyday names, of course. At the foot of this post you’ll find a suggested list; but wait a moment before you drop down there.
Because here I want to invite you to consider the naming of characters living in invented worlds. Fantasy, of whatever sub-genre, generally requires names that aren’t in common use. Read any epic fantasy and you’ll find it brimming with constructed names, some memorable and others that ought never to have been forced onto the reading public. In fantasy, perhaps more than any other genre, it’s essential to invent names that don’t appear in other books, otherwise readers may associate your masterpiece with the work of another author.
But, how to do it? How do you ‘invent’ names?
For me, the most important aspect is the ‘mood’ or ‘feel’ of the work. When preparing the background for my fantasy A Seared Sky I started with a map: maps in fantasy are almost essential if your reader is to gain a proper understanding of where the action takes place. I named the places on my map by employing less commonly used alphabet letters, or, where those letters were common, by using them in unusual combinations or by doubling them. I applied the same rules to my characters, to give a sense of unity amongst place and character names.
I started with simple names, as I wanted them to be easy to read and to stick in the minds of readers. But, because of the need for exclusivity, I ran each invention through a Google search to make sure it wasn’t already out there. In many cases, my simple names were already in evidence, either as fantasy characters, or as names or words used in foreign languages, sometimes as the names of real people. A point here: beware of accepting your made-up names without checking. There’s always the possibility that you’ve named your treasured heroine with a word that actually means ‘ugly moron’, or something worse, in another language!
I had to modify my original choices in many cases. An original male character, ‘Gladron’, became ‘Aglydron’. I transposed letters, changed initial letters, added an odd ‘h’ or doubled the vowels, even inserted a hyphen or an apostrophe. A lot of effort? Perhaps. Especially since I’ve 93 named characters in the trilogy. But, I hope the names are memorable, easy to pronounce and sufficiently different to be distinguishable from other works of fiction.
Pronunciation is another consideration: as the writer, you have a sound for each name in your head, which you try to translate into letters. But readers may well read these in different ways. I named one of my heroines ‘Tumalind’, which I pronounce as ‘Tewmallind’, but my wife, who does my beta reading, and my publisher, both pronounce the name as ‘Tummalind’. Does it matter? Do I mind? No. As long as readers are happy with the sound made by the letters, I’m happy for it to be read that way. English is a notoriously flexible language and it would be amazing if we were all to pronounce every word in the same way. I’d considered supplying a pronunciation guide but decided against, simply because that gives the reader choice, and reading is an active, not a passive, pursuit.
Finally, as an author, you’ll want your names to reflect, as far as possible, the gender of the character. This is, to some extent, a matter of individual taste. But I tried to make my female names a little softer and my male names a little more brittle. I know some will see this as an unwelcome capitulation to perceived stereotypes, but I’m writing fantasy here, not making a political argument (although there are plenty of political analogies in the text for those who care to dig for them). My point is that I want to make the work as comfortable in terms of actual reading as possible. I don’t want to place barriers in the way of understanding by naming a male character, say, ‘Chellyth’, one of the lesser female names, or a female character, ‘Feldrark’, one of the more important male names. I believe names have a ‘sound’ that indicates gender and, whilst I accept that there’ll be differences in opinion about the particulars, I hope that the general rules have worked to support my choices.
To sum up: check your choices against Google, or some other large search engine, to avoid embarrassing coincidences, try to maintain some consistency within the naming scheme, and attempt to match name to gender, if possible.
Writing fantasy is great fun. It allows enormous freedom for the imagination. But it also requires a degree of discipline, if it isn’t to descend into the farcical. I enjoy the whole process of writing. I hope my readers enjoy the results and that writers have gained something useful from this post.
Stuart Aken has been writing since before the flood and says ‘antediluvian’ was a cliché even when he was young. He has seven books out and his most recent, the first volume of an epic fantasy trilogy launched on 30th March. You can discover more about A Seared Sky: Joinings on his blog, and be sure to connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.