Saturday, August 31, 2013

What's in a name?

I often hear fellow authors discussing how hard it is come up with character names. It's not surprising this is an issue, when you think of all the characters who appear in a book, and multiply that by the many books an individual writes during their career. The naming process can feel like a chore.

In my experience, I have found that some characters name themselves. These are the ones who come to me...POOF...fully formed, with personality, appearance, and name. Iylandra, my warrior woman, from The Song of Sehdra Mor, was one of these. She arrived in my awareness with a complete identity, and there was no way I dared mess with her.

In contrast, another primary character from that novel, Katari, was difficult to name. Nothing seemed to fit her. She was a shaman-in-training, from a tribal culture, and every name I tried sounded wrong. That was when I resorted to a name website online. Such sites can be helpful, especially if you have a certain cultural flavor in mind, such as Celtic, Japanese, Scandinavian etc.

I've also started keeping my own list of first names, last names, and place names. I'll encounter a name in a news article, see a street sign, or sometimes just have a name pop into my head. If it has potential, I add it to my list. That way, down the road, I have a collection ready and waiting.

My son, (who is a history enthusiast) has been hassling me to keep names more culturally specific, in my sci-fi and fantasy stories. He makes a convincing argument. If I want the cultures I create for my book to seem real and unique, the names should reflect this. They should seem to fit together, in contrast to names from a different race or place. Authors just need to watch out for overly elaborate, hard to pronounce names. They can be an unnecessary obstacle for readers.

To make things easier on myself, (rather than bopping off to name websites all the time) I purchased The Writers Digest Character Naming Sourcebook. It has the same type of name lists, organized by culture and gender. It even offers an index of names, alphabetically, in the back. So, if you have a particular name in mind, you can look it up and find which culture it comes from. Nifty!

I'm curious what your strategies are for naming characters. How important do you think it is to get the name just right? Leave a comment, and let me know what you think.

Happy naming.

Diana Green
Worlds of Imagination, Adventure, and Romance


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

You are so right that some characters pop up fully formed, named and with a backstory all ready to use. They aren' people I've known or read about, although a few are people I'll meet later in life. Oh, my! Yes it happens.

Others experience ten name changes before I'm satisfied. Glad to know there is help out ther for those folks.

Anonymous said...

I have a database of names based on heritage of the character (russian, indian, spanish, etc.) I use a filler name (like XXX) until they evolve to who they really are (about half way through the novel) then I go to the database and select what sounds right to me based on the person's image in my minds eye.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Unknown said...

Isn't it interesting, that balance between intuition and logic. We use both when writing, and it appears, even when naming our characters.

Nikki said...

Telephone books and movie/TV credits. Why? Because these are real people's names, the kind you'll meet in real life, and they have that ring of truth about them. BBC credits are particularly useful, as they often film on location in Slavic countries, a great source of foreign names. For my scifi, I use an unusual source--the word jumble game in my local paper! A simple word like "maybe" becomes the exotic-sounding "Sembya1812." The lack of recognizable cultural names helps to convey the otherworldliness or othertimeliness of the story.

Nikki said...

Correction--take the 1812 out of my comment, please. My cursor was misplaced when I typed in the Captcha.

Liz Fountain said...

The main character's name in the novel I'm working on now came from a chance comment by a friend - we were both exhausted, and he said something like "I can only speak like Tarzan."
"No, you Jane" I replied - and the title and character name of the novel were born.
I use popular culture a lot (movies, television shows, music) because I resonate with it and it can be fun. In my first book aliens who came to Earth named themselves from the credits to their favorite TV shows. They watched a lot of Charlie's Angels... :-)