Character Names Part 2
Creating Character Names
As mentioned before, one of the things I enjoy most in writing is giving my characters names. For what it’s worth, here are some of my own guidelines:
Free associate: I envision my character’s appearance and personality, then see what pops out of the ol’ subconscious. Often, I’ll be writing a scene and wait until the character makes his/her entrance before I first reach for a name––and it’s amazing how often something just emerges. It’s also when I’ll often come up with half a dozen names at once; write them all down; then drop them in the text one by one. Often the first one sticks.
Evolve the name: Let’s say you’ve always liked the name Rebecca (love that name) and you have a female heroine for which it seems to be perfect. Well, in fantasy, you can’t generally use ‘real’ names because they have too much association with ‘reality.’ So: evolve it. This is best done out loud. Rebecka, Rebbeka, Recca, Reaba, Berecca, Brecca, etc. When you hit the right one it will sing. Try it in a paragraph or two. Will the reader ‘pronounce’ it correctly in their heads? (More important, how will it sound in the Hollywood movie that’s surely following?)
Keep names in a culture: For instance, take surnames in China versus Sri Lanka (a couple of countries important in the tea world, which is my ‘reality’). Chinese surnames are typically a single syllable (Yin, Wu, Wang, etc.), while Sri Lankan are typically four (Ramachandran, Sangakkara, etc.). If your fantasy world has more than one culture, make each consistent with both consonant and syllable choice, so that the reader intuitively knows which characters are grouped together in a culture.
Use the alphabet as a marker: If you have two-dozen characters to name, consider giving each one a unique letter of the alphabet to start the name; this helps the reader keep them separate in her mind. One character that starts with ‘Z’ is memorable, while three that start with ‘Z’ is potentially confusing.
Consider your name’s implications: American culture has boy’s and girl’s names, with little crossover. There are also ‘old’ and ‘stuffy’ names, and ‘new’ and ‘trendy’ names. These are inescapable associations in your readers’ minds as well. If you have an elderly character, would a name that sounded a bit like ‘Ebeneezer’ be more appropriate, or one that sounded more like ‘Johnny’? Probably the former. And what about gender? For a young female character, would a name similar to ‘Lisa’ or ‘Priscilla’ be more appropriate than ‘Ted’ or ‘Arthur’? Probably. And lastly, class: does a longer name such as ‘Hawthorne’ indicate more education or wealth than a name like ‘Bob’? These are familiar base names that, for fantasy, you could evolve, for example: ‘Wathorne and his slave Ob.’ Hey, my next two characters!
Run your name through the search engine gauntlet: Do this soon, before you become too attached. You’d be surprised how many names are taken in existing books. Even more surprising, how many names turn out to mean something really, really wrong in a slang dictionary. Or, may have meanings in a foreign language that are not the right association at all. This process has killed half my characters’ names in the crib. No problem—just evolve it until it’s clean.
Don’t be afraid to change it, a lot: I twice changed the main character’s name in my not-yet-published novel The Aether Glasseven after the book was almost done, each time making it shorter, easier to mind-pronounce, and simple yet not widely ‘taken’ out there in literature, language, and slang. When are you done? When you can no longer think of your character as having any other name than the one you gave them.