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Tips for Creating Great Character Names
By L. B. Gale

Choosing names for the characters in your speculative fiction story ranks high on the list of things you must accomplish to make your storytelling memorable. Choose well and your characters can become instantly memorable. Choose poorly and no matter how well you write, your reader will have a tough time disassociating a terrible name from your not-so-terrible character.

I firmly believe that no matter what Jar Jar Binks looked, acted, or sounded like, he would have been detestable to a large amount of people purely because his existence forced them to hear, repeatedly, the eye-rollingly annoying name, Jar Jar Binks. Darth Vader, on the other hand, looks awesome on paper, sounds awesome when you speak it, looks awesome on screen and sounds awesome when he speaks. That's crme de la crme of the character naming world.

So, a good name can matter a whole lot. It won't help you make a good character--that involves entirely different work--but it will give your reader/viewer an initial impression.

But how do we begin finding good names? This article lays out where you need to start. Keep in mind that while these pathways favor the creation of names for fantasy and science fiction characters, these methods can be applied to any genre.

Pre-Naming Essentials:

1. Make a Choice: Common Modern Names or Fantasy Names?

This may be the most significant decision you will make when writing a speculative fiction story. Will your names bear resemblance to modern names or will they be entirely unique to your world? Anybody in a modern English-speaking country might name their child Harry Potter or Ronald Weasley. Few people (though some do exist) would name their child Frodo Baggins, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, or Arwen Undomiel. On the whole, these authors made a choice. You must as well. If you choose common modern names then you face the dilemma of having to differentiate your names from any other character in fiction with boring old names like John, Jane and Harry. If you choose fantasy names then you risk choosing names that could seem so wildly unappealing that few people will get through the first chapter or segment of your story (these are the fantasy names that look like a toddler slammed their hands randomly against the keyboard and the author went with it: Foiarlaeroji of the Noqurokaftas People, for example).

2. Choose a Philosophy

Some people do not care whether or not the names they choose have any deeper significance: they just want good, memorable names. Some people, on the other hand, have an obsessive compulsive desire to find names that in-and-of-themselves have symbolic significance.

Take Lyra from His Dark Materials as an example. A simple name, but perfectly fitting. The word sounds like "Liar," which fits Lyra's nature well. It also sounds like "Lyre," as in the harp that accompanies ancient storytelling. Since Lyra's lies also involve story-telling, this also helps ground the essentials of her character. Many of Rowling's names work on this level, but even more obviously: the name Remus Lupin clues any educated reader into the fact that this character has some connection to wolves (Remus being the wolf-suckled brother of Rome's founder Romulus and lupus being the Latin word for the wolf species). Severus Snape gives the reader an immediate impression of someone who can be both severe and snakey.

The Papa Bear of fantasy himself, J.R.R. Tolkien, was all about making sure that names had larger meanings. rel=nofollow [http://www.amazon.com/J-R-R-Tolkien-Century-Tom-Shippey/dp/0618257594]According to Tom Shippey's work on Tolkien, the name Gandalf came from a Norse mythic poem. The poem is just a list of dwarves. One of the dwarves is named "Gandalf," which translates to "Wand Elf." Tolkien looked at the list of names and thought, what the hell is a "Wand Elf" doing with a bunch of dwarves? Boom. There's the story of The Hobbit in a nutshell. The plot answers that question. Well the wand-elf must be a wizard, of course! And he has joined the dwarves to aid them in some kind of quest. Duh! You can see in this instance, how the name Gandalf has a deep, rich and satisfying background. Tolkien did not just choose it at random because it sounded nice. He did his homework and came up with a deservedly iconic character by finding the right name.

If you want to write characters who have names that symbolically add to your reader's interpretations, you want to follow in Papa Bear's footsteps (to some degree). Otherwise, you might fall into Bruce Willis's camp (the Bruce Willis from Pulp Fiction), the camp that rejects seeking any deeper meaning behind names (to put it nicely).

Either way, as you ready yourself to choose names make sure to carve out a plan. Your characters, your story and your readers will thank you if you do. Read more about naming and speculative fiction writing in general at lbgale.com.


L.B. Gale is a teacher and literacy specialist in New York City. She studied comparative mythology and fantasy fiction for her Master's degree at the University of Chicago. While aspiring to become a fantasy author herself, she writes about fantasy at http://www.lbgale.com.




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