Names are crucial to a story. They help us connect with a character. In fantasy and science fiction, naming conventions are even more important. Often, authors are creating new worlds and languages. They help us explore a new land in our minds, following characters we get attached to. A poor name breaks that immersion.
This pressure combined with the passion of writing your story can make choosing names for your characters very hard. There are some wonderful name generators out there, and I highly recommend their usage. Play around with the settings and tweak the results. But there are some important points you should keep in mind. Follow these tips to make coming up with names in your next novel a little easier.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a name that is difficult to say. In fact, there are some famous names that are often the topic of debate (Drizzt is the first to come to mind), which can help generate buzz. However, if you are a new writer diving into the world of fantasy or science fiction, it is best to keep it simple.
- Limit apostrophes, preferably none
- Use vowels
- Keep it to a medium length
Apostrophes have a history of frustrating readers. If you are going to use them, ensure there is a sound reason within the world and at most use one. Long names get tiring for a reader, so if you do use them, consider nicknames.
Look deep into your character’s history. What about their culture would inspire naming conventions. What are their parents like? How would those personalities reflect in the name of their child? What is the political or social structure that could affect names and ancestry?
What is your favorite trait of your protagonist? Are they smart, witty, sly? Use this as inspiration for their name. Don’t be too literal. In The Selection by Kiera Cass, the main character has a talent for singing. Her name is America Singer. Just, no.
Refrain from using exact translations from other languages. Say you have a character who is the comic relief and decide to use the German word for funny, Lustig. It could be a great name, but not for this archetype (see above). And as always, when looking at other cultures for inspiration, be careful in your treatment.
This can tie into making sure your character’s name doesn’t give away their motive. A famous example is Darken Rahl from The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind. Darken is a bad guy who has gone mad and delves into dark magic. Here you are toeing the line into “butt of the joke” territory.
A big turnoff for many readers is having important characters with names that are too similar. It causes confusion and a reader may mix up characters or forget others entirely. I recently read a novel that had a very complicated narrative style. There were strange worlds and names with people inhabiting other people’s bodies. At one point, a man was inhabiting another man. Their names rhymed and only the first letter was different. I had to read the page several times to understand what was happening.
Aside from keeping the rhyming to a minimum, a great way to differentiate characters that might have strange new names is to ensure only one character starts with a certain letter. If your main character is named Arlayna, don’t have her best friend (who plays an important role in the story) be named Aleesia. This is a hard task if your cast is large, but it is a good starting point when determining names for your main players.
There are no set rules in fantasy and science fiction. No one is forcing you to create your own naming convention. But, if you decide to do so, make sure each character uses the same rules. Don’t mix an original name with a traditional one. This is known as the “Aerith and Bob” trope.
Along the same lines, your characters and their names should fit into your world. If you have a high-fantasy novel, a name like Bob might seem out of place. In contrast, an urban low-magic fantasy story likely won’t have a character named Dheglouh Kreberveth. If they do, make sure there is a good reason for it.
Just remember, it is the characters themselves that should be where your focus in originality lies. Sometimes an unconventional name can start out as a joke and end up a phenomenon (think Katniss), but it’s rare. It’s more likely your crazy naming style will be the subject of complaints on Goodreads and Reddit. It’s best to go with a simpler approach and focus on storytelling.