What's in a Name?

Writing fiction has its pitfalls. Because you're creating your own characters, societies, cultures and sometimes even worlds, it might seem that there are very few rules that you need to abide by. The problem is, there are. Most of them are more suggestions than anything, little tips and tricks that help flavor certain people's writing. And one that a lot of people simply do not understand (myself included) is how to come up with a good name for a character.

I can't tell you how many times I've created a character with a picture of their personality in my mind, and not had any idea what to name them. You have a choice in these cases: name the character from the litany of real-life names that already exist, or just string together random syllables and call it a day. This is especially true in science fiction and fantasy, because the temptation can be to create some sort of crazy name that must mean that character is from a different universe.

Of course, the problem then it that it's all but impossible to pronounce that sort of name in real life, which means talking about Klikeyune becomes a rather awkward conversation about "Kli-key- whats-his-name". Names like that can work, but it's rare, and most of them have the benefit of being short and using common name root sounds, instead of trying to make up new ones. Let's dig into that a bit deeper, in fact.

Break out the dictionary

So, what makes names like Kaleesi, Spock and Thrawn work where so many other names fail? I'm really not sure. I'm not enough of a language student to figure out if there's a certain rhythm, combination of consonants and vowels that makes a name just click. Maybe JRR Tolkein knew something that I don't, because pretty much all of the names he came up with work, even the ridiculously flowery elf ones. Like Glorfindel. Or Celebrimbor. No wonder than every fantasy universe since his had done their best to mimic the names he came up with somehow.

Sci-Fi names are even harder than fantasy ones, though. Because for a character to be considered alien, they have to sound alien. Thus, almost every space-based universe with an alien race of some sort has resorted to giving them ridiculous names. Star Trek gave us the aforementioned Vulcan first officer, but also such ringers as Chakotay, Neelix, T'pau, Worf, and more. Some of them work, some of them kinda do, and others just... don't.

Creating your own name from random sounds and syllables is all well and good, but the name can't just be alien for alien's sake. It has to be something that doesn't rely solely on repetition to stick, something you just write down over and over until it starts to become familiar. Names like Worf work because it's easy to pronounce and hard to mispronounce, while still being distinct and sufficiently "alien" to create the sort of atmosphere that Star Trek is aiming for.

Or at least a history book

Here's the thing, though. There are a lot of names out there that sound odd and distinct but don't carry the risk of having to make something up from scratch. Just pick up the right history book, or historical text, and you'll uncover a whole swath of them. For instance, a very common source for names, one I've used myself, is the Bible. George Lucas mined it for some of the names in the original Star Wars films, and the show Rebels follows in those footsteps with sufficiently space-y sounding Ezra and Kanan (Canaan). But other ancient cultures are just as effective.

Kevin Herbert's Dune, for instance, draws some elements from Muslim cultures and the names of many of the character bear that out, like Shaddam, or Feyd-Rautha. As with Star Wars, names like those are used right alongside Paul and Jessica, marrying the mundane to the weird and giving the reader the sense that, while they may understand something of this universe, they don't understand everything, not yet.

There is something to be said for using names from other cultures in order to create a more diverse sort of universe. I try to make the name appropriate to the character that will sport it. If all of the characters I create can be called Tim, Joe or Steve, then I had better start adding a little more life to the cast of whatever I'm writing. Having a Steve in your writing is fine, it's just a name after all, but Steve can fit so many characters, why not reach out a bit and find a name that's a bit more descriptive, a bit more colorful? Names are important, they give us a snapshot of a character at a glance, so don't just close your eyes and put your finger down in a book. Put some thought into it.

Next time! Dialogue vs. Narrative! Don't miss it!