A Word On Names

Today, I’m going to talk about names.

Names are an important tool in both creating a character and establishing a setting. In most cases, it will provide the reader’s first impression of person or place, so a carefully chosen name is essential.

Stick around and I’ll show you where to go for names and a few tips for making up your own.

world flagsLet’s start with “normal” names – those we might hear in everyday life. I’m also including culture-specific names in this category.

The most common piece of advice I’ve heard for this type of name is “look at baby name books/websites.” This is perfectly good advice. However, I’ve found that by far the best resource is a website called Behind the Name. This is my go-to place for character names, especially if I’m looking for something cultural.

The site is basically an extensive collection of names from different cultures, time periods, and works of fiction. You can search by usage, origin, meaning, popularity, gender – there are even a few lists you can use. (For example, one list is for names with “brave” meanings.) If you look under “tools,” you’ll also find a random name generator, an anagram search tool, and a link to the surname section of the site.

Next up is fantasy and sci-fi names.

In some cases, it’s fine to use names from the everyday category in these stories, especially if you’re using a pseudo-medieval setting. (If this is you, I’d recommend checking out the Ancient/Medieval section of Behind the Name.) Everyday names also work fine for humans in a sci-fi setting. In other cases, you might need or simply want to make up a unique name.

starshipThis can be harder than it looks.

First off, a word of warning: try to avoid names with over-complicated spellings, no matter how cool it looks. If the reader can’t pronounce it, how are they going to recommend your book to their friends? Chances are, they won’t.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t be creative with your spellings – oftentimes, that’s exactly what makes a name stand out. Just don’t go overboard. There’s no need to say “Märyissah” if “Marissa” will work just as well. (Also, don’t use diacritical marks – like the dots over that first ‘a’ – if you don’t know what they mean.)

If you need inspiration, try looking at names or words from other cultures. Using an Asian base will give a name a more exotic feel, while a European base will call to mind something a little closer to home. If you want something truly unique, try looking at an Elvish dictionary. (Nevrast is a good one.)

Pick the culture closest to your setting and go from there. Or, if you like, pick a culture that’s nothing like your setting. Contrast can be an effective tool. Just be careful not to confuse your readers – giving someone in a European-like setting an Asian-sounding name (or vice versa) can be jarring.

nameless signFinally, here are a few tips for place names.

If your writing is set in a real place, you obviously don’t need to worry about this. For the rest of us, choosing a name can be difficult.

The easiest way to come up with a believable place name (by which I mean it sounds like a place rather than a random word) is to go look at a map. If you’re trying to name a city, look at the names of real cities. If you’re naming a country, look at country names. Check for patterns in letters, sounds, number of syllables. Most importantly, look at how they end.

City names often end with ‘polis,’ ‘n,’ ‘town,’ ‘s,’ or even ‘city.’ Country names often end with ‘a,’ ‘land,’ ‘ia,’ ‘us,’ or ‘ea.’ Look for trends like these and incorporate them into your fictional names. Alternately, start with an actual place name, then add on to it or take something away.

You can make your place names as realistic or cliché as you want – whatever works for your setting.

Now, my friends, go forth and name thy creations!

8 thoughts on “A Word On Names

  1. Andi L Gregory says:

    Love this post. As I’m working on editing a novel where I have tons of place-holder names, this is exactly what I needed to know right now. Thanks for the links and suggested sites, and for new ways to create and find names. Honestly, I didn’t know about half of these things before I read the post. Thank you!

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  2. Names are my favourite black hole to fall into. I have so many baby name generators and etymology dictionaries saved on my browser. Place names are harder for me—loving the tips about finding trends on maps.

    (A quick friendly tip, though: you might want to change “accent marks” to “diacritical marks” up there. An accent is a type of diacritical marking.)

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  3. This is great advice! Thanks for the direction to different sites, they’re really helpful. I really liked your suggestions on what names styles to use for different genres, it gave me some good ideas. 🙂

    Like

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