More on Names

A couple of thoughts on names, as I surface from the depths of deadline madness:

Avoid alliteration and echo.  (I know — you saw what I did there.)  If you’ve got one character named Fred, don’t name his best friend Frank.  The same goes for his worst enemy, his favorite second cousin, or any other major character he’s likely to interact with on a regular basis.  And don’t name his sister Frances, either.  Your readers will thank you.

In the real world, of course, you’re likely to find clusters of alliteration all over the place — we’re all of us likely to know more people than there are vowels and consonants in the alphabet.  But fiction isn’t the real world.

Also: When inventing names for characters in a created-world fantasy, it’s generally a bad idea to borrow names wholesale from an existing or past this-world culture — your readers may make assumptions about your imagined culture that you didn’t intend, or may decide that you’ve borrowed more than just the names.  This is a can of worms you don’t want to open by accident.  (Cans of worms should only be opened deliberately and after considerable forethought.)

Making up your own names out of nothing but a handful of phonemes is a tricky process, depending a lot upon having a good ear for such things — and fewer people have a good ear for such things than think they do.  There are computer programs these days that generate English nonsense-words, meaningless but pronounceable collections of phonemes that can be sifted through for potential names:  Gammadyne’s Random Word Generator is a full-featured program with a lot of customizable options; or if you’re looking for something quick and free, the nonsense word generator on this page will display you a list.  Of course, you’re still stuck sorting through lists of words like Acenmithok, Cegraen, Heunara, Seligis, Cersposhe, Lis or Ellets, Michapere, Abiled, Aliger, Dernald for the ones that’ll actually work .

My own keepers out of that bunch, if they were all going to be characters in the same story, would be Heunara, Seligis, Lis, and Dernald; Heunara and Lis would be female and Seligis and Dernald would be male.  But that’s mostly because I’m arrogant enough to believe that I do have a good ear for such things.  Or at least a trained one.

(A quick-and-dirty shortcut, if you don’t want to go the computer-generated route:  Look at the names of minor characters in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and Malory’s Morte D’Arthur.  They’re pronounceable, they’re in the fantastical vein, and they draw on the raw material of the common French/English/Celtic name-hoard without being obvious about it.)

One thought on “More on Names

  1. Speaking of names, names that begin with an ess sound can give you unfortunate effects when combined with “said” in a dialog tag. After a page of Sid said and said Sid you might be tempted to strangle silly stuttering Sid.

    Shall we mention the virtues of using ordinary names even in High Fantasy? A major character in The Lord of the Rings was named “Sam.” And “Pippin” and “Merry” are regular (though not exactly the most common) English names.

    “What should I name my character?” isn’t all that fraught a question. While lots of newbies say something like “What name should I give to my troubled female main character, who stands 5’6″, has long black hair, green eyes, and has mystic powers that she’s hiding from her parents?” the answer is “Mary.” Or maybe “Patricia.” Names don’t have to mean something, and they definitely shouldn’t be a cheat-sheet to tell the readers that this person is a good guy, that one is a bad guy, and the one over there is morally ambiguious. Naming characters for their function went out with Everyman.

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