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Writer’s Den: What’s in a Name?

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Or so wrote the great William Shakespeare. But would it really? Names are important in fiction. It’s hard to identify with a character that has a long or difficult to pronounce name, and names that are too common or overused can have the same effect. So how do we come up with the winner? The one name that speaks to us, and matches all the right criteria? Your main character will be with you through the whole book, and possibly beyond if you’re writing a series. His or her name can become an important marketing device later on, so it better be a good one. Here are some tips to help you choose that all-important name.

That Name’s Too Common

Using a name that is too common or overused robs your name of impact. Consider naming a character “Bob”. Would this stand out in your head as a character to watch, or would you glaze over it? This also applies to alternate spellings of common names. Your main character should be unique, and his or her name should add to this.

Now this doesn’t preclude you from using common names, but be aware that if you do choose a name like this, you’ll have some work to do to make the character really stand out.

That Name’s Too Hard To Say

This is a trap that we fantasy authors fall into all the time. In order for fantasy to work, a reader must suspend his or her disbelief and accept the things in your story as real and possible (or at least plausible). My word of warning here is: don’t make this more difficult than it already is. Names with X, Q, or apostrophes should be used with caution, as they are often mispronounced. Silent letters also throw people for a loop and can be confusing. If you have names with these characteristics, try presenting the name to a few people who have never seen or heard the name before and ask them to say it out loud. If they stumble or mispronounce it, chances are your readers will too.

Consider the name “Taraxle”, a name I use for one of my characters in an upcoming novel. Tar-axle is pretty easy to pronounce. Then take a name like “Xiticix”. I have yet to figure out how to pronounce this myself, let alone getting other people to. My best guess is She-ti-six, but your guess is as good as mine.

The last thing to be wary of here are names that look the same, but can be pronounced in multiple ways. These names make it hard for your readers to discuss the character out loud, and can lead to confusion. My soon-to-be-released book, The Time Weaver, has a character like this. Her name is Malia, which I have since learned can be pronounced Ma-lee-a, or Mal-ee-a. Note the difference in emphasis. My intention was to have it pronounced as the former of the two, but some people have picked the latter.

But I Want It To Sound Authentic

This is an argument I hear a lot from people with complex names in their books. So I’ll put this out there right now: complex names ruin good stories. There’s nothing wrong with authenticity. Authors often come up with naming systems that correspond to different regions of their worlds and different races. These are good things and allow your readers something to pick up on and identify with for instant recognition value.

But naming systems don’t have to be complex to be authentic. Anne McCaffrey does a very good job of this in her Pern books. F’lar, F’nor and many other people in the series have abbreviated names. In fact, all male dragon riders have abbreviated names. This adds value, as when you see a name that’s been abbreviated, you know two very important facts about the character. She makes extensive use of apostrophes, but the names are pronounceable, and that’s important.

I Hate Coming Up With Names

Yeah, me too. I’ve been complimented numerous times by my beta readers on my choice in names. Well, I have a secret to tell you. I use a name generator. (Sorry if I’ve just disillusioned half my audience, but it’s true.) The catch here is, like all tools of this kind, name generators should be used with caution, lest you fall into one of the traps I’ve already described. The generator I use allows me to select from many types of names, and then will generate a hundred names for me to select from. I’ll sometimes go through several hundred names before I find one that I like. And some names (like my dragon names) I still craft on my own, as they are too long to use a name generator for.

The way I see it, writing a novel requires a tremendous amount of time and creativity. Sometimes there are many names to devise. The tool I use helps me create original and consistent names in my world, without wasting a lot of time on the naming process. Tools are okay, as long as they are used effectively.

Even if you love coming up with new and interesting names, picking good strong names for your characters can make your work enjoyable to read, and memorable. It’s tough to be original and still have names that are relatively simple and easy to remember, but it can be done. Put the work into it now, and it will pay off later on when your readers rave about your heroes and villains.

Title image by st3to.

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11 Comments

  1. An interesting article, which doesn’t fall into the attitude I’ve so often come across that any name more than two syllables is evil and to be avoided like the plague. I have a personal soft spot for long names, which I try to balance with user-friendliness. Diminutives can help, even if you use the full name as well. I have two characters called Karaghr and Failiu (for the record, I personally consider both easy to pronounce) who are referred to as such in the narrative, but they always call each other Kari and Fai. Any reader who has problems with the full names can think the diminutives every time they come up.

    I’m not sure it’s a big deal if the reader interprets pronunciation of a name differently from the author. Unless the way the name’s pronounced is vital to the story, it’s only important that the reader’s comfortable with their pronunciation. Fai, for instance, properly rhymes with die, but if a reader wants to rhyme it with day, they’re welcome to.

    • Thanks Nyki. I’m not opposed to multiple syllable names. Many of my names are three or more syllables. The goal is clarity, ease of interpretation, and memorability.

      Your right that name pronunciation is largely a non-issue. But there are cases where it can lead to misunderstandings. The comment was more a word of caution than anything. 🙂

      (For the record, when I read Fai, I pronounced it “fey” 🙂 )

  2. xiagan says:

    Somebody should’ve told Rothfuss before he named his main character Kvothe. 😉

    There are books I had put away because I stumbled over the character’s name all the time or where I found the name to be ugly and disruptive. So yes, names are important. You don’t have to follow the rules but you should know that they exist and you should have good reasons for naming your character Fafhrd or Kvothe.

    • Teri says:

      Was thinking this very thing myself. While I adore Rothfuss’s writing, I want to plant my foot in the soft danglies every time I read “Kvothe.” Does this make me a bad person?

      Same thing applies to characters with annoyingly LONG names that don’t have a nickname (in which case I usually just create my own nickname for them and skim over the name anytime I read it.)

    • Casey Gravelle says:

      I actually like Kvothe as a name. Granted, I’ve taken a few Latin classes, and instinctively pronounce half of my v’s as w’s.

    • Danny says:

      Good to know people’s feelings on Kvothe. I haven’t read Rothfuss’ books yet but I have a WIP that has lots of Norwegian-based names and “Kv” is a starter for my MC. My dad was actually telling me last night that the names in the story were a bit hard. Thanks.

  3. Khaldun says:

    Names are so hard to come up with. I don’t know how GRRM does it.

  4. akapaoloverdi says:

    An interesting article. Personally, I try and use names that suggest something about the character. For example, one of the main characters in the story I’m working on is named Cobalt. Cobalt in our world is described as a hard, lustrous silver-grey metal; Cobalt the character is a strong warrior type who generally wears grey, though lined with imperial purple, and his (hopefully!) scintillating personality draws people to him. The intonation of the word itself also, in my opinion, says something about his character in it’s simple and direct clarity. Naturally, this canot be applied to such a degree with every character, but I do try!

  5. The main character in my WIP is named John Smith. There’s actually a good reason for it. One of the villains has no name at all, and there’s a reason for that too.

    I did a blog post on this subject long ago, and I hate to repeat myself:
    http://authorguy.wordpress.com/2010/09/03/a-rose-is-a-rose/

  6. Casey Gravelle says:

    One of the races in a book I’m going to write, the Shoo’Tael (loosely pronounced Shoe-Tie-Eel) is an aquatic race that communicates using a kind of sonar, much like whale song. I would like to be able to express this in my book, but my english teachers have yet to teach me a character that tells us to make a drone at 256 hertz, followed by a short screech at 984 hertz.
    What I have in my head is a species that communicates through music, which I believe to be a beautiful concept. However, aside from putting sheet music in my books, I have no idea how to express this. Any Suggestions?

    What I’m currently planning on doing is using names with a lot of long vowel sounds.

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