Naming Names

“Tell me if this is a stupid question,” my correspondent asked, “but how do you come up with the many different names needed for a story or novel? Is there a secret to making them sound somewhat realistic?”

And I said:

It’s not a stupid question at all. Good names, or the lack of them, can make or break suspension-of-disbelief.

For a novel set more or less in present-day consensus-reality, phone books and baby name books are good resources to have on hand . . . the trick is to avoid the names of real people, especially in contexts that might get you sued. Human nature being what it is, more folks are likely to take offense at sharing a name with your villain than with your hero, although — human nature, again, being what it is — you never can tell. A certain amount of awareness of what a particular name says about the bearer’s age or ethnicity or socio- economic background is also helpful. (For example, the people who name kids after the characters in favorite soap operas aren’t going to be the same people as the ones who give out as first names the last names of maternal ancestors from previous generations.)

For invented cultures, things get more difficult. Picking an obscure language and stealing names from it sometimes works, but you run the risk of having somebody who knows the language come up to you eventually and say, “Aha! Gotcha!”

Making things up completely is harder than it looks if you want the names to look and sound like they came from the same linguistic source, without making them seem too familiar. Fantasy in particular is oversupplied with pseudo-Latin, pseudo-Greek, and pseudo-Celtic coinages.

And of course, there’s the perennial nightmare of every writer who’s ever had to make up a language and/or name out of whole cloth — the fear that you’ve inadvertently supplied your Noble Hero with a name that means something truly dreadful in a language which you don’t happen to speak (and neither does your copyeditor), but which dozens of readers will recognize and snicker at.

It’s one of Murphy’s Laws of Publishing: if a book contains a coined term which, unbeknownst to everybody concerned, turns out to be a thundering obscenity in an Inca dialect spoken only on a single mountaintop in the depths of Peru . . . guess where a copy of your book is going to wind up.

Fortunately, these days we have the internet, which will let you know whether or not you’ve accidentally given your villain the same name as some notoriously litigious demi-celebrity, and which will help you avoid at least some of the other embarrassing pitfalls.  Google Search and Google Translate are your friends.  Know them, use them, love them, and they will be good to you.

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