Naming Things – Characters, Places, Gods, and Stories

One of the best things about writing the stories you want to read is that you get full control over all the little things that would bug you if they weren’t done right. And one of these things is naming stuff. Here’s how I do it:

My Philosophy on Names

I do believe that the name is usually indicative of the person. There are exceptions, naturally. But typically I view names as really fitting the people who have them. Therefore naming stuff is incredibly important to me. Meaning, origin, and connotation have to be thoroughly examined before I settle on a name. It has to ‘stand out’ to me as The One. It has to be the sound I go to when I want to feel that person.

I’m nuts, I know.

It’s very difficult for me to make up names, and if I have to I’ll usually try to derive from an existing name. I tend to gravitate towards the more flowy, stereotypical Fantasy names, so I am very strict with myself on what is not acceptable.

For example, I will never include apostrophes in my names. Never. I’ve seen them ridiculed too many times. If you have an apostrophe name you can pull off, then more power to you, but I just can’t seem to. No Fa’anaan or Shira’fa’na for me.

I also want things to be easily pronounceable. Because of all the Spanish classes I took, my made-up names are usually phonetic, instead of expecting my readers to pull those fancy pronunciation tricks English uses. I get irritated in books if I can’t figure out how to pronounce something, because inevitably I’ll decide on the wrong way, and when learning the right one am very resistant to change.

For example, I read Seamus as see-muss. Siobhan as see-oh-bun (still not sure the correct pronunciation of that). In reflection, maybe it’s just Irish names… Which leads me to another point. In the sleeping beauty retelling I tried to include a few Gaelic names as an homage to fairy legends, but after belatedly realizing the English spelling pretty much has nothing to do with English pronunciation, I gave up and just started changing the spelling of stuff to how I thought those Gaelic words should be pronounced.

So as well as being nuts, I’m also insensitive and disrespectful. Joy.

A word I use frequently in the sleeping beauty story is damhsóir, which means dancer. In Gaelic apparently this is pronounced DOW-sor. I pronounce it damh-so-ear. You know. Like it’s spelled.

I like saying it this way because it evokes ‘damned’, and the damhsóir are cursed soul-slaves of the Fae. Those familiar with how fairies often ensnare victims by playing magically-compelling music will understand why I chose that word :)

Characters

Names are so tied up with personalities for me that when I envision a new character I usually have a pretty good idea of what I want their name to sound like or evoke, usually even options for a first letter. Then it’s off to the baby name websites. I’ll surf around in letters I think the name should start with until something sticks. Alternately, I search for names that describe an aspect of the character’s personality.

If I’m doing a particular genre I’ll look for those names specifically. For the sleeping beauty story I pulled a lot of names from Old English. For my sirens story it was Greek. For Nameless I wanted to have a Hispanic influence.

Recently I was trying to name a new character and I really wanted a v in her name. V’s are severe (ha, look, another v word), but I think they can also be feminine in a dangerous sort of way. That was the personality for this character, so I sought out names with v’s, but eventually had to create my own (Shava).

I collect potential names in my character document and play around with them in the fake queries and summaries I write to see what sticks. Usually by the time I’m really writing the story the names are solid.

Then all I have to worry about is repetition. I’m drawn to certain sounds. That’s how I ended up with Rowan, Halen, and Soren all in one story. Two syllables, all ending in an ‘un’ sound. I’m trying, you guys. I’m really trying.

In other notes, there are some authors whose names I just don’t get. Let’s go with the obvious: Peeta and Gale. Need I say more?

Places

I like my places to be derivative of real places, or to describe physical features in their native tongue. For example, in the sleeping beauty story I asked Twitter for German-inspired names, and ended up with Adalwin. I forget why now, but it had something to do with the region.

For inspiration, I turn to parts of the world that evoke the fantasy world I’m working with. Google maps is awesome. Even just country maps are amazing. There are so many beautiful country names, like Mauritania, Syria, Croatia, Lithuania, etc. Changing out come letters can give you a familiar-sounding country that still works for a fantasy setting.

And then sometimes you just have to make stuff up. My main country in the sleeping beauty story is Becharon. And yes, I violate my own rules by making it tricky to pronounce. This article is not about pointing out my hypocrisy, readers! Remember that. Anyway, Becharon is pronounced beh-care-un, but you can call it beh-share-un if you like. That’s pretty, too. It came to me while I was driving. Other names that ‘just came’ to me are Shalimar, Kasabrian, and Nicobar.

Gods

This is a fun one. I feel like there’s more leeway with god names because they’re supposed to be mystical. God names for me have to evoke that god’s function. I recently created a god for a new story, the god of the Truly Wicked. This god uses wicked people to bring about positive change in the world. I felt like there was already a word for using bad to bring about good, but couldn’t find it by googling. So I started looking around for different articles on ‘the ends justify the means’ and stuff like that, and ended up with Mohist Consequentialism. The god’s name became Mohiste.

Titles

Every writer’s passion and nightmare. There are horror stories of having to change titles and getting stuck with one you  hate. Or one the marketing team loves, but then the readers all get the wrong impression because readers think differently than marketers. Titles are HARD. They have to describe your story and be ‘marketable’, and get changed so often that some writers don’t even name their books. They call it MagicStory or The Story About Bears, and only when the publisher assigns a title do they consider it to have one.

Having assisted with several title brainstorms, including my own, I can tell you that titles can be fun or taxing. Some stories naturally lend themselves to lots of story ideas. Others, not so much.

For example, NAMELESS was originally called WOMAN’S WORLD. I know. But that was my shorthand for the story that was about a world of women rulers. And really, what were my options? GYNARCHE? Something to do with slaves that would make everyone think it was about BDSM? It became ANTEBELLUM, which literally means ‘before the war’, which applied, but is also a historical term for the years before the United States’ Civil War, and so that too was out. So it took like 6 years to arrive at NAMELESS, and I don’t think anyone blames me for that.

The sleeping beauty story was originally called ROSES OF ASH. I love this title, and still think it’s awesome, but my agent didn’t, and so we changed it to the more marketable A CURSE OF ROSE AND SNOW. I decided not to get too attached to anything in lieu of being assigned a title, so I just call it the sleeping beauty story, and you guys know what I’m talking about.

I did name the second book, though. It’s A GARDEN OF HEARTS AND DARKNESS. Which I fully expect will change, and I only really named so I would stop getting confused between ACORAS 2 and ACORAS version 2 in my google docs.

So now that you’ve been privy to my rules and neuroses about names, tell me yours: Do you have a naming philosophy, what are the favorite names you’ve invented, and how do you usually go about naming your characters?

4 thoughts on “Naming Things – Characters, Places, Gods, and Stories

  1. Omg I love this post! Totally agree with you about Siobhan. I only learned how to properly pronounce it this year (never realized I was doing it wrong!) and I STILL think of it as “see-ob-han” every time I see it, lol.

    And I also LOVE two-syllable names ending with the “un” sounds. :)

    I’m (on-and-off) working on a pseudo-Asian fantasy, and naming is definitely a challenge. It’s hard to keep the names both pronounceable and authentic. I’m planning to base them on Mandarin since I actually speak it, but it comes with a few challenging sounds that are hard to render in English. I could use existing standard romanizations and end up using syllables like xu, qi, and ci, or attempt to make them more phonetic myself (which would only help slightly since some sounds are just impossible), or just ignore any difficult sounds and only use sounds that are easier to convey and pronounce in English. I guess for now I’m going with a mix of 2 and 3.

    • A mix sounds good to me! I love all those Chinese words represented in English… they /seem/ so awesome, but then you hear how they’re actually pronounced and it makes no sense. If we’re rendering sounds from a foreign language into English, can’t we at least make it phonetic?

  2. Names are fun! Since most of my writing has been set in the historical “real world” I didn’t get to be quite as creative–but picking a name for a character or a made-up town is still a fun challenge, as the name has to capture a person or place yet still sound…nice. I hate it when I’m supposed to like a character named Helga or something…I know, petty. But I had much more fun with my post-apocalyptic project because the character names had to fit the cultures of the places they came from–I imagined how rural and urban societies, evolved a hundred years past a societal collapse, would use names. Sometimes I attach an additional “inside secret” meaning to a name–for instance, one of my urban post-apocalyptic characters is named for a street in Chicago that you wouldn’t necessarily know unless you’d been there–and some focus more on aesthetic and catching a “feeling” for the person, place, and situation.

    I know what you mean about hard-to-pronounce fantasy names. I guess I should just pronounce stuff how I feel like it…but as a reader I always worry if I have it “right”! Not what you want your reader distracted by while reading :)

    • Helga and Olga are two of my least-favorite names :( I’m sorry to any who are reading this blog.

      I LOVE ‘inside secret’ name meanings. It’s totally awesome when I hear the reason why an author named their character something, or when it turns out a name evokes a deeper theme in the book. But see, I idolize this so much that choosing my own ‘inside secret’ meanings makes me feel like a total noob though. ‘I have no idea what I’m doing!’

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