Written Thoughts – What’s In A Name

Thoughts and Advice On Name In Fantasy & Science Fiction

Thoughts and Advice On Character Names In Fantasy & Science Fiction

One of the easiest and hardest tasks of a writer is choosing names. Whether it is for characters, places, new words for new concepts in the story or the name of the story itself, once something has a name, it becomes defined. It is both limiting and liberating at the same time. Coupled with the story, the name becomes the definition of that character. Whenever you hear the name of something or someone that has become iconic, it becomes the short-form for all the mannerisms, descriptions, and visualizations. (Especially if there was defining visual form. If you hear “Harry Potter” or “Discworld” most know everything about them.)

Because of all these well known names, the challenge is coming up with something both unique and simple in the hopes when your story becomes popular, those names also become iconic and not ‘copycat’ shadows.

The K.I.S.S. principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) applies here for landmark names. Look at the real world. Most landmarks are often named by defining characteristics. Skull Mountain (because it looks like a head from the right angle,) Twin Pines <whatever> (because there were two distinctive pine trees in the area,) Red Cliffs (because the rock is reddish in color or looks red in a certain lighting.) Even the more exotic sounding names are usually pretty bland when translated. I grew up near the Schuylkill River. In the Native American tongue of the region, ‘schuylkill’ means hidden river. (“Hidden river river” is rather redundant, but that’s beside the point.) The Tulpahocken creek was something like “turtle rock creek” due to a rock that looked like a turtle in it.

When naming people or making new words, especially common in speculative fiction, there is a balance between unusual, unique and complex that must be watched for. Knowing how people read and see printed words (or hear them) is important. Most people recognize a word by its collective letter shapes. So, while you could have two characters named Angle and Angel (which sound quite different), visually, they could confuse the reader.

Stylized words and names should be used with care. Non-letter characters like dashes or apostrophes can make a word unique, but should be used sparingly, as they visually interrupt the text. If a character’s full name comes with a title, call name and family name, having a bunch of punctuation marks throughout could be confusing enough to lose the reader to the story. Not something you want to happen.

One should also avoid the proverbial “keyboard accident” of throwing lot of letters together, especially randomly. If the reader cannot recognize syllables, they cannot sound out the name, which makes it forgettable. Also, not something you want to have happen. Being mindful of your target audience’s language and what are normal letter patterns is critical in this regard.

One last point to make, especially for speculative fiction, is naming the flora and fauna as well as social structures like titles or vocation/hierarchy positions. A piece of advice I was given was don’t make a new word for something where a real world word will do. If an animal walks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck, call it a duck, even if it’s a non-Earth completely made up world. This helps the reader visualize your world with something they already know. Using titles we know, (captain, lord/lady, king/queen, etc) makes it less complicated.

This isn’t saying that new words shouldn’t be created! However, the story will need to define this for the reader so they learn what it is supposed to be/mean. If you have too many new/unique titles, plants, critters, etc., your reader will be overwhelmed and potentially lose the story. If you choose to make a world with entirely unique plants, animals, titles, or whatnot, that is fine. However, only name or reference things that matter to the story. A forest is still a bunch of trees growing together. Only the one that actually talks to you, then eats your hat, really needs to be named and defined.

The choice for names and world definitions are a very personal thing, and there are no engraved-in-rock rules about them. Only personal preferences. Hopefully some of these guidelines help when wading through the sea of possibilities.

About LexyWolfe

I am a writer of fantasy and occasionally science fiction.
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