The Name Game
Pitfalls to Avoid and Tricks to Use while Naming People and Places
*Yes, that is his real name. He is so metal he probably scored his first headshot from the womb.
Bad names are problematic, and anguish over choosing a name can keep a writer from getting a story off the ground. So today, for the Story Planning Week hosted by %CRLiterature at %projecteducate, we're going to talk about naming things. I'll start with a major rule, then move on to naming characters, and wrap up with naming places. But first, an animated gif.
X-Men taught me all I ever needed to know about naming things. And with characters like Gambit, Apocalypse, Banshee, and Stryfe (sic), it built my vocabulary, too!
The Most Important Rule of Naming Things
This one is easy. Naming the people and places in a story is far less important than actually writing the story. Spending some time pondering and selecting names is a good thing. Obsessing over minutiae (Jen or Jenny? Tom or Tim?) is a waste of your time. Even when the options are radically different (Xerxes or Steve?), it's still probably a waste of your time. The quality of the writing will trump a poor (though not atrocious) name choice, and with the miracle of Find and Replace commands, your choices aren't set in stone.
Not the best name choice ever. Seriously, you can see that out of uniform he shoots two beams even in this quick gif. Still an iconic comic book character.
Right now you might be thinking, "hey, *ShadowedAcolyte, if it doesn't matter that much, why are you writing an article about it?" Two reasons:
I hear a lot of writers complain about how hard naming thing is, and
I read a lot of stories where things are named really, really badly
So, what can you do to get over the anxiety of naming things? As with almost everything else, the solution here is practice. Once you've named a thousand things, the process gets easier. And when you've named ten thousand, it almost stops being a process. Most of the tips below I learned while running sessions of tabletop roleplaying games, where as part of presenting worlds for the other players to adventure in, I have had to name thousands of things, often on the spot. Naming anxiety has gone out the window for me, and by the end of this article, I hope it will for you as well.
To recap, the most important rule of naming things in stories is to not obsess about naming things. Pick a name and go write.
Rogue: possibly the best possible name for a femme fatale.
Down to the meat of the article--writers seem to obsess about character names more than anything else. I'll start off with a general rule, discuss some naming conventions to avoid, and close this section with some tricks I use to make naming easier.
The General Rule for Naming People
Here it is: generally, it is better to stick with a recognizable name over a newly-minted one. You want your reader to remember a character's name, and this is easier with a recognizable one. This doesn't mean names should be boring, only that it's nice if they are recognizably names. As a reader, I'm going to have an easier time processing the character of Julian better than the character of Julga.
Of course, this is a general rule, not an ironclad law. Exceptions abound, especially in the sort of speculative fiction with non-human races. Often, though, even a character with an in-setting reason for having a bizarre name works better with a more familiar nickname or handle that is used frequently (looking at you, Meriodac "Merry" Brandybuck). Additionally, what passes for "recognizable" obviously varies by the reader's experiences (if you grew up speaking Mongolian, "Geser" is a perfectly valid heroic name, whereas it looks and sounds odd to an American reader). However, when multispecies or multilingual concerns are not primary, it's best to stick to recognizable names.
Superheroes should probably be another noted exception to the rule. Right, Jean?
Things to Avoid When Naming People
As above, these are all generally a bad idea. There are exceptions.
Things that sane parents wouldn't name their children, like Lucifer. Yes, crazy people do name their children crazy things. But unless the character has renamed himself later in life, or the weird name has relevance to the story ("Gaia Freelove Smith became an accountant to defy her drugged-out, hippie parents--she prefers to be called 'G'."), avoid these.
Blatant misspellings (or "creative" spellings) of recognizable names: Gerami for Jeremy, Ylyzabeth for Elizabeth, Kryss for Chris. Those sorts of things aren't creative as much as annoying. While obviously some people do name their children these things, and some names do have multiple valid spellings (Sean/Shawn), it's best to stick to a normal spelling and let Elizabeth earn her unique nature with her actions, not with a Y in her name.
Names chosen because they "mean" something. The internet is awash in baby name sites, many of them with poorly sourced (i.e., invented) "meanings" for various names. A character's significance doesn't need to be tied up in his name--plenty of important historical figures bore names quite common in their time (think of how many American Founding Fathers were named 'John'!).
Names that are monstrously obvious and overdone references, like a first-man-to-do-X named Adam, a gorgeous man named Apollo, a pure woman named Mary, etc.
Names that abuse apostrophes for no discernable reason. Yes, I'm looking at you, Drizzt Do'Urden. In rare cases, these serve to mark sounds that don't have another phonetic equivalent, but your wise alien named Y'leth Ellae'ea isn't so much unique as highly derivative.
Names that are wildly different in tone and scope on characters from similar backgrounds. If your fantasy village has three human men named Andoreth the Just, Bunderly von Ivtia, and Steve Thompson, I'm going to have a hard time taking your story seriously.
Any of poor style choices found in this excellent journal (there is some overlap with the above), or that appear as clichés on TVTropes's list of Naming Conventions, should be avoided.
Professor/Magneto slashfic: Still a better love story than Twilight.
Tips for Naming Characters
Use baby name guides. As much as they might be lying to you about the "meaning" behind a name (which is, remember, largely a waste of time), they do list a great many names, some of which you might want to use.
Use your memory! You can assemble names by mixing and matching names from people you've met, characters in other books or movies, or the news. Grab a newspaper (who am I kidding--open a browser and look at a newspaper's website) and scan for names. Obviously you don't want to use someone's whole name, but a cool first name from the local wedding announcement page and a cool last name from one of your old middle school teachers might go together well. When I hear an interesting name, I sometimes write it on a post-it note (or grocery receipt, or whatever's at hand) to remember to use later. Unlike a baby name guide, these have the advantage of being actual people's names, not just a list some unknown person or persons put on the internet. This works with other references from your past, like high school yearbooks.
Use Wikipedia creatively. One of my most tried and true techniques for naming a group of characters from a similar background is to pick a country, pull up the list of that country's current Parliament or Congress or whatever legislative body it has, and start mixing and matching names. Need an authentic Greek name for a protagonist who is always fighting with his immigrant parents? Pop open the dryly titled List of members of the Hellenic Parliament June 2012 to present page and mix and match. You can easily create a list of authentic-sounding names for the character, his family, and their friends. Just remember not to use a real person's name verbatim. That's gauche. You can also use the Wikipedia pages titled "List of Famous People from X", but that's not as reliable because many people are famous under a pseudonym or just have descent from one place with the naming conventions of a separate place (the List of Zoroastrians includes Queen singer Freddie Mercury, who was born in Zanzibar and grew up in India but didn't really become famous under a Zoroastrian-esque name).
If you are going to create a weird set of names for perhaps an alien race (or a human group with a fictional language), pick a few consonant blends that are common and use those twice as frequently as other consonants, while making sure some names don't use the common ones. At the same time, pick a vowel or two and use them half as often as the remaining vowels. Those two quick rules will create a serviceable 'feel' to the fictional language without a lot of extra work. Be careful, however, of falling into the trap of the Law of Alien Names.
Apparently extending your claws magically generates clothing, too.
Naming places is both easier and harder than naming characters. It's easier because there are even fewer conventions, so it's harder to even seem uncreative, but it's harder because you have that many more options. The most common names to avoid are the ones that just boil down to state-the-obvious descriptions ("The Black Tower", "Sea of Blue") or melodramatic word + object ("River of Tears", "Devil's Reef"). Stay away from those.
One tip to give a region some coherency is to name many of the same types of things (cities, forests, etc) with the same prefix or suffix. You can see this in the real world: common American town endings are "-ville", "-boro" or "-borough", and of course "-town"/"-ton". If three of four cities in a fantasy region start with "Tar-", that implies a shared linguistic heritage, which is a nice touch. But there are always exceptions to any convention.
The following is a non-exhaustive list of how many places get their names. When naming new locations in an area, you can (and probably should) use multiple methods.
From the geography. Chimney Rock is so named for its appearance. So was Gran Teton.
From a person, either a famous one (the State of Washington) or just a local person (Jackson Hole, Wyoming). This is probably the most common source for town/city names. After all, if you build the town, you get to name it after yourself.
From an event. Cape Fear, on the coast of North Carolina, is named that because some sailors thought they were going to crash on it.
From an extinct or largely forgotten language. Argentina, despite lacking silver, is named for the Latin word for the metal (the explorers were optimistic about finding some there). Many places across the US bear Native American names (or Anglicized versions thereof).
From numbers. Roads aren't the only thing named with numbers (Area 51, Ward 8).
From mythological figures. Lots of places in England have names rooted in the Arthurian legends.
From other place names. New York springs to mind, but there is a town called Versailles (pronounced ver-SAILS) in Ohio.
From unknown or forgotten sources. Some place name etymologies are disputed, and some lack even hypothetical explanations of how they came to be called what they are called. This is quite common, and that gives you a lot of leeway when it comes to naming places.
I think it's important to note that for most people, in most situations, place names are either wildly obvious (Chimney Rock) or essentially have no meaning (Mississippi River). Yes, linguists and historians might be able to tell you why and when it was originally called that, but your average person nearby doesn't know, and doesn't mind not knowing. With that as a guide, you're fairly free to name things whatever you wish as long as you avoid odious clichés.
Storm was so cool she got another awesome name: Ororo.
I hope that some of the above was useful to you. Remember, the most important rule of naming is to stop worrying about naming and just write something!
Do you have any tips or tricks when it comes to naming things? Are there any trends or patterns in naming that you really hate? Please, share them below!
Astute students of 90s cartoons might be expecting to see Jubilee somewhere around here. Despite her cool name, Jubilee is too lame to include in this article.