I see a lot of people on social media asking about naming characters, fantasy characters in particular. How different should they be? Should they have surnames and grandiose titles? Should I stick an apostrophe in the middle to make it sound more fantasyish?
I’ve done a bit of research and knocked together a quick guide to help you out.
Coming up with names
Let’s start with the hard part. I like George R.R. Martin’s approach. He takes existing names and gives them a slight twist. John becomes Jon, Edward becomes Eddard, Jamie, Jaime in what has to be the slightest tweak of all.
This approach I’ve found most effective. I write down a name and then replace letters, remove letters, reorganise, shorten, lengthen. Playing around with vowels is a method I particularly enjoy. For instance, take the name Hal and swap the vowel around. What do you think? Try everything and anything.
Another approach is trying online fantasy name generators. There’s shit loads of them. Here’s just one: http://www.fantasynamegenerators.com/. I had a browse and this is what I got for elf names:
Some aren’t bad—Alok, Jhaan, Lhoris—but most provide the perfect examples of what not to do. Too difficult to pronounce. Too wordy. Trying too hard. For reasons we’ll now go into, avoid.
One last thing before we move on. When you’re set on a name, say it aloud. How does it sound? Then Google it to see if it means something else. It happens!
Clarity is king
In fantasy, it’s fair to say some names can be a bit crazy. Where did this love of the spontaneous apostrophe come from?
“Calt’huun looked at Lym’r, then at Ecka’rd, before at last turning to Pn’agy’my.”
I just made that up, but you get the idea. A complex name draws negative attention to itself, jars the reader’s flow and causes headache-provoking frustration if it’s too difficult to work out.
What do the masters do? Raymond E. Feist called his protagonist in The Riftwar Saga Pug. Three letters. Simple. Likewise, Brandon Sanderson in his Mistborn series named his protagonist Vin. George R.R. Martin did the same with Jon and Bran. The names of protagonists and antagonists will feature heavily in your books so avoiding complexity is desirable. Not only that, you’ll get fed up of typing it out every time.
Avoid similar sounding names
Linked to clarity, giving characters similar sounding names isn’t doing your readers any favours.
In the A Song of Ice and Fire books, for instance, Theon’s sister is called Asha. Then there’s the wildling woman who looks after Rickon Stark called Osha (notice the swapping of the vowels). In the TV series, the decision was made to change Asha to Yara due to confusion. It may be a TV show, but people are people, and if they found it confusing watching it, readers will find the same problem.
Characterising through names
An eccentric name amid a sea of mundanity can help set a character apart. You don’t want your character to be a Mr or Mrs Grey, blending in with everyone else.
A nice way to characterise is to use a surname or title. For example in David Gemmel’s Legend, one of the central characters was Druss the Legend. In Star Wars, Luke is a pretty dull name, but Skywalker livens it up tremendously.
Think about nicknames too. They can be an effective way to say a lot about a character without having to say anything at all. The Hound or The Mountain from Game of Thrones for example.
Keep your character’s age and background in mind
Like in the real world, in your fantasy realms names could go out of date. You may have an old man with a name long forgotten amongst the populace. Or the opposite may be true. In our world, we have a shit tonne of John’s, James’, David’s etc. Your fantasy world could have a whole host of common names too. But always keep clarity in mind. If these characters are central to your story, try and avoid using the same or similar sounding names or give them clear distinguishing features.
A character’s background is important too. In your fantasy world people from different regions, kingdoms, countries or continents aren’t going to have similar sounding names. It’s unlikely someone born in China is going to be called Mark. Again, George R.R. Martin is a believer in this principle. A character from Braavos isn’t going to have a similar name to someone from Winterfell.
They can be underused in fantasy. You may have an orphan character who has no surname, or you could have a monarch with a proud surname rich with tradition and history. Lannister or Stark, for instance. Try and ensure they go well with first names. Cersei Lannister, for instance, has a nice ring to it.
Consider meanings to add extra depth
A lot of names have meanings behind them such as in African, Arabic and Celtic cultures. African names, in particular, have some beautiful meanings behind them. It’s worth doing some research. The Celtic name Nara, for example, means cheerful. You can browse more here: http://babynames.net/all/starts-with/a
I’ll leave you with some further reading. Here’s a good article on fantasy names from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/mar/16/fantasy-character-names