Monday, June 30, 2014


Good old Bort Sompsin
One of the more interesting parts of writing fiction is creating names.  I'm not personally fond of being overly creative when you name your child, but in writing a book you can come up with all sorts of interesting titles for places, things, and people.  Especially in a fantasy or science fiction story, names can become quite unusual and odd.

At the same time, this can be a bit of a burden.  In addition to creating an entirely new world, a writer has to come up with names, locations, languages, cultures, maps, and so on.  It can be pretty daunting, especially when starting out a new series of books.

Few people who write are trained and gifted a linguist and philologist as J.R.R. Tolkien.  In writing the Lord of the Rings, he came up with an entirely new alphabet and many cultures which lent him a great advantage in naming his characters.  Most folks don't have the training or natural inclination toward this kind of thing and could use a hand coming up with names.

You don't always have to invent your own new names.  There are so many different cultures, languages, and cultures already on earth that borrowing from them can be an effective tool for an author. In my second book Old Habits I took a Russian name "Jenya" for one of the female characters.  Its unfamiliar to most non-Russians and has a nice sound to it.

Even without using names from other cultures, there are a lot of possibilities.  Scanning the roster of sports organizations can bring some unusual possibilities (Coco Crisp, Denard Span, Starlyn Castro, and Urban Shocker are all names of actual Major League Baseball players through the years).  Keeping track of interesting and amusing names you encounter at work or through friends is a useful tool for an author as well.

Some names seem to evoke a sense of danger, frivolity, or severity by their sound and context.  Mildred was once a pleasant girl's name but is so old fashioned now that it evokes age and primness to modern readers.  Names like Ridge, Mace, and Mack sound rugged and masculine.  Lucien, Damien, and Vladimir have a sinister feel to them to many readers.  Some names like Chance, Muffy, and Tad give a sense of a vapid rich kid.  Many names such as Billy, Krista, and most girls' names ending with an i or y (Sally, Tiffani, etc) sound childlike or sweet.  Picking names along those lines can lend a sense of personality to a character that the writer can exploit or use to surprise (it turns out Vader Karlov is a nice guy!).

A trick I've used a lot in the past which is very effective is to pick a name familiar to people and change it slightly.  One letter is usually enough.  Take the name Floyd.  Change one letter and you can get the name "Lloyd" out of it, which is not unheard of in our world (particularly in Wales).  But you can go further; change the first letter to a C and you have "Cloyd" which is now an unusual, but comfortable sounding name.

This is easy to do with many names.  Aaron becomes Aren.  Jacob becomes Jalob.  Mitchell becomes Hitchell.  By using this technique, you create names which readers find easy to pronounce and shape in their minds, but unique to the setting.

Because as an author you'll usually want to avoid names people cannot pronounce, let alone read as a word.  This is a strong temptation with many fantasy writers, who often become infatuated with the apostrophe.  While you might like the name J'szen'thal'ekh, how on earth is it pronounced?  If a word becomes so alien and confusing to a reader, the best you can hope for is that they just skim past it.  Put too many of these in a book (one is sometimes enough) and they'll just toss it aside.

Hello, Mr.. uh... um...
Apostrophes in general can be a problem, as they are a cheap and easy way to make a name seem exotic.  Deanne is not very interesting but D'Ann (yes, that's a real name for a real girl, I've seen the tax return) looks exotic.  Both sci fi and fantasy use apostrophes to jazz up words. In the film Avatar, the aliens are called Na'vi.  The Dragonriders of Pern series denotes a dragon rider by changing their name to have an apostrophe: Lytol becomes L'tol (until his dragon dies, and he goes back to Lytol).

Another tendency is to use umlauts, those little dots over letters.  They look exotic and even tough (metal bands use them a lot, such as Mötley Crüe) but can cause confusion if translated to other languages, such as German or Swedish that actually use this sort of notation to change the pronunciation of a letter. Similar is the Nordic "ø" which again causes problems with translation.

Some become even more creative, using symbols such as @ and ! for various effects (the ! usually a click sound such as in some African languages).  The more of this you put in a name, the harder it is to pronounce, or even read, so when you introduce the character Bth'al!@s'ln its just a garble of characters like censored profanity and means nothing to your reader.

Its not that a writer should avoid this kind of thing, it can serve a purpose.  Putting an apostrophe between letters can lend many readers to understand you're meaning for both letters to be pronounced, such as read vs re'ad.  The first is "reed" and the second "re-add."  And many good writers have used this kind of thing, particularly in science fiction, to denote a very non-human species with deliberately unpronounceable names.

One way to get around this is to have characters say the names for the reader in a more easily read fashion.  I did this with a girl's name in Old Habits:
“I am Mineau, and this is Gretchette,” the little one said, indicating her sister.
“Minnew, Gretchette, hello,” I said for lack of anything more intelligent to say.
This kind of device can help readers get past your jumble of consonants and punctuation for later.  But its wise to avoid too much of this, and its usually best to keep this sort of name for the unusual and minor characters rather than someone you want memorable and familiar in the book.  Its all right to have some ancient word no one can pronounce any more or a Demon that has such a tortured name that he's virtually impossible to control with naming magic, but this should be the exception, not the rule.

There's something to be said for just coming up with a jumble of letters that ends up an interesting sound.  I have dice from an old game called "Boggle" that bear letters rather than dots or numbers.  I sometimes will roll these and arrange them to form a word when I'm stumped or want something very different.

Grabbing five here I roll and get J, U, W, E, E.  OK I can use those straight up as Juwee - perhaps a girl's name like a toddler's pronunciation of Julie.  Or Eweuj, Wujee and so on.  This can give some very strange combinations of letters and sounds, but it has the advantage of being very distinct from what you usually do or have used very often in a story so far.  It should be used sparingly because there's no pattern or rhyme to the results, which brings us to the final point.

A final thought is that in our world, except for the United States where people seem determined to come up with names that have no similarity to their culture, traditions, or heritage, names are usually indicative of locations and peoples.  If you see someone named Patrick O'Hearn, they very likely have some Irish heritage.  On the other hand Hans Von Klopf is likely German.  Saijo Ishura is reliably Japanese, and Utanga Moloke is probably from somewhere in Africa. 

If you are writing about another world, this can help lend a feeling of depth and authenticity to your book.  If all your characters whatever their background, seem to be of similar type, then it won't help differentiate between cultures, locations, and peoples.

J.R.R. Tolkien used this device to make his peoples seem different.  Hobbits all have names like Bongo and Denro, while humans have names like Aragorn and Boromir; or if they are in the Rohirrim, Theoden and Erkenbrand.  Elves are named Legolas and Lorien, and the dwarves have names such as Thorin and Dori.  Each one gives the reader a sense of being set apart, so that you can usually tell by just the name what sort of person is involved.  When Frodo tells Arwen something about Gimli, you know that's a hobbit speaking to an elf about a dwarf.

This is a bit harder to come up with as a writer but it can be a very powerful device.  Readers will, particularly in a larger series, get a sense of someone's heritage and nationality, race and location from the name.  That blade of Ghzargash is probably from an orc, but the city of Eaindiil is elvish.

Using devices of this sort can give your book a fascinating, exotic, or unusual sense without being so wild that readers become frustrated or confused.  And in the end, it doesn't ultimately matter how readers are saying the names and words you give, as long as they are saying them.  Better they mispronounce your character's name than skip over it or stop reading entirely.