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What’s in a Fantasy Name?

Today I ask you to share some of your creative ideas. All authors have to give their characters names, whether they write romance, mystery, or fantasy. Fantasy authors have more fun than most authors, because we create unique worlds. One major part of worldbuilding is to create names for characters, creatures, landmarks, towns, and places of interest. How you name your world is important to how your readers perceive that world.

The temptation is to develop names that are imaginative and unique to the created landscape. That’s a great idea but remember to keep the names pronounceable. Imagine someone reading your work aloud. Will the names detract from the flow of the story? A short common name can often allow for a character’s formal title to be a little more imaginative.

So, when choosing names where do you go for ideas? Of course there are name generators but they don’t give the imaginative author a chance to create a name of their own choosing.

One suggestion is scanning the credits of world movies for ideas. Compiling lists of similar names for reference when creating different cultures and races. Adopting this idea can keep consistency in the spelling and style of titles. Even if not used, the lists are handy for reference.
Foreign language dictionaries can help an author find names that relate to people or places in their novels.

Names can reflect a trait of character or distinguishing landmark for a place. Something a little more imaginative than Smith for the blacksmith perhaps, but this method of naming allows scope and imagination and subtly reminds the reader of the character’s purpose.

Too many names starting with the same letter can cause confusion. Remember some readers use visual patterns when identifying names. Others read them aloud inside their head. Having names easily read and remembered will keep the story flowing. Too many names beginning with the same letter is one of my weaknesses. Despite being aware of this problem, going to lengths to change names, somehow I revert to the original names. Against my best intentions!

So apart from the names that refuse to leave, what do we look for? Ease off the tongue? Good symmetry when written? Or do we employ an aspect of the character to describe them or their background in their name? I apply all of the above, at different times.

Just a few examples of names from my series The Chronicles of Caleath.

Penwryt for a mage, reflecting the scholarly attributes of the study involved in reaching his status. We meet him in Exiled: Autumn’s Peril.

Tallowbrand again a mage, the reference to candle flame seemed relevant with his power to influence fire. We meet him in Exiled: Winter’s Curse.

The Vergöttern are a god like race we meet in Exiled: Winter’s Curse. Vergöttern comes from the German verb to deify.

The Sorathii are a race of space pirates who maintain an artificial sun in the hollow earth world. Sorath (angel) who is the spirit of the sun. We meet this race in Underground: The Day of the Sun.

Gwilt, comes straight from the credits of a favourite TV show. Have no idea of meaning.

Caleath and Nasith, my main characters from book one, came from a friend with whom I began writing many years ago. The names have remained, though their story has changed many times.

Enough about my writing, this is your chance to share. There are no wrong answers. All ideas are welcome and could help another author. How do you choose the names for your characters, creatures and landmarks? What do you avoid? Have you ever put down a fantasy novel because the names confused you?

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25 Comments

  1. Marius says:

    Naming is a very important part of fantasy writing, in my opinion. I fully agree that names have to be pronouncable, but personally I cringe when the main protagonist’s name is John.

    For me, the worlds created when writing fantasy are just that – worlds. They have their own sets of culture, architecture, geography and importantly, languages. I think the author who is really in tune with their created world will instinctively know how to fuse these names, based on the character’s race.

    Let’s look at examples:

    Tolkien’s legendarium has very specific letters and sounds appearing in the different languages. Elvish, for example, has many l’s (Lothlorien, Legolas, Imladris, Elrond, Glorfindel, Galadriel, etc) as well as th’s and i’s. This is because he created a framework into which he could plot words.

    Contrarily, the Dwarves have k’s, z’s, kh’s and g’s – indicative of their, shall we say unrefined nature 😛

    I love naming when I write, and I probably spend most of my time trying to figure out exactly the right name – there must be a balance between relatability from the reader’s side and authenticity from the character’s side. Like I’ve said before, there is nothing more frustrating than the lead character, who eventually becomes an Archmage who slays dragons, called Joe.

    Thansks for the post, and have a great week!

  2. Jules says:

    Love this topic. ^_^

    I try to stick to the “not too many names beginning with the same letter” rule myself, because I’ve found it problematic in a number of fantasy novels. It doesn’t always work (sometimes names just refuse to be changed), but I try to start a writing new story and group of characters with that principle in mind.

    One of the most helpful websites I’ve ever found for names is http://www.behindthename.com. It allows you to search for names based on language background (e.g. Spanish, Chinese, Ancient Roman, even Mythological), which I find adds an element of authenticity that isn’t always there if you create names from scratch. In most cases I begin with a particular language group and then look for names that evoke a particular type of sound (hard, soft, mellow, light) or have a meaning that relates to my character’s personality, and then I may fiddle with the spelling.

    For the novel I’m currently working on, I wanted the names to have a Hebrew feel and so I actually looked at the names of the Hebrew months of the year and then fiddled around with the spelling until I was happy with the result. I find that using a real-world language as a basis adds a sense of cohesiveness to the names and the language that I’m trying to evoke. (I have a linguistics background, so I have very specific ideas when it comes to the sound and spelling of names.)

    I try to avoid just plucking names out of the air, because I’ve done that in the past and then I find that the other worldbuilding/language work I’ve done outgrows the names. I ended up changing the name of one of my main characters because of inconsistency, which was painful at the time (but I felt much more comfortable with the end result).

    One thing I don’t like in fantasy novels: names that don’t fit the milieu. Names have to feel like they could have come from a real language base for me to like them (hence my own process). I don’t mind pronunciation guides, if the guide shows effort made by the writer to use a consistent system.

    Coming up with new names is one of my favourite parts of writing—I always look forward to it when I start something new. 🙂

    • Great link. Thanks for sharing that Jules. You have some good ideas on choosing names too. Thanks. I agree that using real-world language as a basis helps cohesiveness.
      Choosing names and finding ones you are happy with is fun.
      Thanks for your comments.

  3. LEC says:

    Coming up with fantasy names from scratch is nice, but a tool I’ve found interesting/useful is the Fantasy Name Generator found here: http://www.rinkworks.com/namegen/ Once you know how to handle it, you’ll be able to create names from the simplest to the most complex. You can the pick the names you like best (according to your own rules, tastes of whatnot) or use the names generated as inspiration for creating your own…

    • Thanks for that link Lec.
      It is a good starting point. Choosing your names is important to setting your characters. If you can build on names you have generated all the better. We all have to find a starting point. Thanks for your comment.

  4. D.L. Flesher says:

    My main resources for naming characters, places and creatures are baby name books, the telephone book and online language translators. It all depends how exotic I want to be. The phone book I mostly use for last names because I can never think of them on my own. I might pick a name and then alter it to suit what I need. Baby name books are great because they give you the ethnicity and meaning of names and they are divided into male and female. I might know what letter I want the name to start with so I just look through that section until I find something that works. Again I might tweak the name a little. For really exotic names and for places and creatures I tend to look to other languages. I’ll start out looking up a word that relates to what I’m naming, in various languages, making a list of the ones I like the sound of, and then either simplifying a word or combining a couple of words. To keep ethnic groups within the story consistent I’ll stick to the same languages. I tend to think that people have an ingrained feeling about the sounds of languages. Even if they are not familiar with the language itself, languages from hot places have a specific sound, languages from cold places have a specific sound, Slavic languages conjure a certain image in the minds eye, so I will use languages accordingly. I’m not a linguist like Tolkien, so I can’t expect to completely fabricate a language from scratch. But I really don’t need to. The way people are named is informed by their language and their culture, and I try to keep that in mind.

  5. CB says:

    I don’t really have a system and sometimes wish I did. Mostly I just string a bunch of sounds together until it starts to feel right. Naming is mostly a ‘feel’ thing for me. It has to feel right for the character, but I could never explain why one name felt right and another didn’t. Once I have the right sounding name, then I work out the right ‘spelling’.

    I agree it helps if names from the same culture, race etc. have similarities, but I’ve never been good at that part either, and I particularly hate naming minor supporting characters (probably because I don’t care about them as people that much).

    Guilty of too many names starting with the same letter sometimes (A – don’t know why). I’ve never had trouble remembering the names of different characters (I’m one of those weird people who can rattle off the names of 100+ characters from the Wheel of Time and differentiate them all) so I sometimes forget not everone else can.

    Might check out that fantasy name generator. Sometimes I find it best if I can modify from something. Inspiration I guess. For some reason I’ve found naming harder as I get older (yes, I’m in my dotage at the ripe old age of 30 – maybe it’s all those Wheel of Time characters taking up available memory).

    • CB, Sounds as though your method works too.
      Enjoy your dotage, I remember being so old and now it seems young.
      As for remembering over 100 characters from the Wheel of Time…wow.
      Thanks for your comments.

  6. Barry Simiana says:

    Most of the time I start with a set of names that will change thru the course of the first draft. Beyond that, and mostly because i write in the “10 minutes from now” arena, i tend to use local and common names. My one nod at fantasy – and I have to revisit and finish it one day – had a lot of names that were similar in pronuciation as they were mostly family members and they took their names from those who had come before, much like the Nordic people in our world. Also, they were a closeknit community and the sameness of the names brought the group closer together, because a mis-hearing might bring in a person who might not ordinarily to something they might need to know. It was a cultural thing.

    • Hi Barry,
      If your names are similar in pronuciation they would be similar in pattern and spelling? When writing dialogue or action with several characters of similar names, it is more difficult preventing confusion.
      Thanks for sharing your ideas and taking the time to comment. I look forward to reading your fantasy… when you revisit it.

  7. Wendy says:

    What an interesting topic! You show how the right names for the characters in fantasy worlds also have to sound right and shouldn’t confuse the reader. I have to admit my thinking usually stopped at the 1st point. I promise it won’t happen again 🙂
    Because I have used some Swiss names, I know the spelling is correct but I can’t pronounce them. I hope my readers will be happy to read them in their head. But what if I’m asked to read at a book reading? I’ll develop laryngitis and just shake my head when a stand in struggles with the names. Another bad habit I fell into was unwittingly using versions of the same name. Rudolph; Rolf: Rudi. What a shock it was when I discovered this. So I changed Rudi (he was a secondary character) but the other two were too deeply imbedded in the story so I have convinced myself that it’s okay because they are two sides of the same coin. One is an evil usurper and the other the honourable, rightful heir. That works for me even if it wasn’t planned 🙂
    I have drawn on names from myths and legends in some stories and names from an ‘angel’ book.
    I’ve also used a baby name book and look for names that will add symbolisn to my characters e.g. Ingrid = a hero’s daughter. Ursula = she- bear. Eva =life.
    Another admission … I like random generators of all kinds. The Flat Earth games had a fantastic one for fantasy creatures including dragon names. But that site has gone now. I loved that site.
    It must be so rewarding to be able to create names specific for your characters like Rosalie and Tolkien did and to be like Jules with her linguistic background, but my imagination needs lots of fuel. lol.
    I find I spend more time over the villains’ names than the heroes. I wonder why that is. Maybe I like them more.
    I’ve gained a lot from all the great comments too. Thank you everybody.

    • Wendy, it is funny that you mention how you have used the same name for three different characters. I am guilty of doing that too. Over eight books it becomes easier as the character count increases.
      Unlike CB my memory doesn’t extend to remembering all the minor characters even in my own novels. As I begin a new series, I find I am wanting to use the same names as I have previously. Perhaps I need to try the name generator too.
      As for doing a public reading. We might need to share the laryngitis. My nerves would be shot for a start. Don’t look at me for being a stand in!! I tried to do a reading for my blog but even that makes me nervous.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. There are some good ideas shared here.

  8. Thanks everyone for sharing your ideas so generously. It is great to have different resources to fall back on.
    It’s good to see what works for other Fantasy authors. Will make finding names so much easier in future, having these ideas, links and resources to work with. Thanks to your help, we all benefit.

  9. Cubist says:

    I use baby name books depending on the characters and the genre I am writing in. For fantasy writing I use this site http://bit.ly/bwM3J. It is a great place to find gods and goddesses’ names. It really depends on what the character looks like in my head when I name them.

    • Having an idea of what the character looks like is important when choosing a name that’s true.
      Thanks for the link… Cool site. Thousands of names to choose from and sorted into countries.. it’s great.
      Thanks for commenting and sharing Cubist. Appreciate your feedback.

  10. Khaldun says:

    Wow, thanks for all the great links and great ideas. Definitely going to steal them to use =)
    On an random note, I’ll just say I try to avoid using characters with the same names as well, just because I have had problems keeping characters apart when there are three people named Eric, Eryk, and Ereck.

    • Khaldun, I couldn’t read a book by a favourite author I had waited for impatiently, when the first chapter introduced three characters with name so similar, my poor eyes/brain couldn’t seperate them. Sadly I have never found the time to go back and try again. It taught me a harsh lesson though.
      It is great to have such generous people reading the article, so willing to share. Again, I want to thank everyone.
      And you Khaldun, for taking the time to comment too.

  11. revteapot says:

    Useful discussion, thanks.
    As well as the above, one of my cheats is just to take a normal name and spell it differently.
    While John might not work for a hero, Geon might…

  12. I never use RW names unless the character has RW links, or sometimes in comedy (I did have a Queen Tracey once, but it was meant to be ridiculous). I try to use combinations of sounds that feel right and are consistent linguistically. I haven’t actually created the languages I use, but I’m generally aware of the type of morphology and sound-patterns they use – for instance, one uses noun-category suffixes, so character names are always followed by -va and place-names by -ne.

    Because I’m using a whole earth-sized world, I need a considerable amount of variety of name types. I avoid ridiculous letter clusters, but there have to be some that are fairly alien to an English-trained ear or eye, though where possible I give people easier diminutives – one of my characters, for instance, is called Karaghr (which I personally don’t find difficult to pronounce) but often known as Kari.

    I only ever use English-based names when the meaning is supposed to be explicit. My most-used character has the soubriquet the Traveller, and the assumption is that he uses the word meaning that in whatever language he happens to be speaking at the time. Similarly with the River Wossiname or the Thingumy Sea, but I’d certainly never (apart again from comedy) have a city called something like Megaville.

  13. […] Faction posted an article back in September, 2011, called What’s In A Fantasy Name?, and they brought up some valid […]

  14. […] names, starting with the post I referenced earlier from L.B. Gale. Fantasy-Faction.com also has an article on the topic, Patricia C. Wrede chimes in, and Brent Weeks has an opinion as well (covered in section 5D at the […]

  15. Salassa says:

    A bit late to comment, perhaps, but I stumbled across this and I’d like to say that I don’t think straight up taking foreign language words is a good idea, because odds are sooner or later a speaker of that language will end up reading your work. I’m German and while I haven’t read your book, you calling a race of people “Vergöttern” is very jarring. The grammatical inconsistency bugs me- vergöttern is a verb used as a noun without appropriate modification- and I personally find it jarring to encounter German words in English text. Plus, you run risk of sounding silly to speakers of that lamguage… The actual usage of vergöttern

    • Salassa says:

      I have no idea why it suddenly submitted my post. Apologies.

      The actual usage of vergöttern in German evokes the image of a lovestruck admirer singing praises about their lived one rather than literal deities.

      Obviously it’s easy for a writer to accidentally come up with a name that’s a word in some language, but I don’t think doing it intentionally will do them any good. At the very least, the spellung should be altered a little so that it isn’t literally the same word.

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