Name Theory: How to Name Your Aliens

There seem to be only a few ways writers create alien names.

  1. Throw some letters together.
  2. Take a word/name and add an ending.
  3. Be inspired by mythology and folklore.
  4. Choose a noun.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of these processes.

Number 1:

  • Pros: This method comes up with names and terms that are the least likely to sound “human” or “from Earth”. You can literally create anything.
  • Cons: You could unknowingly re-create a name or word that exists, thereby either “stealing” another writer’s creation or using a word that means something to others and could possibly be humorous (in a bad way) or offensive. The names you create could be difficult or impossible to pronounce, which may anger your readers. This can take a long time.

The lowdown is that this could be a good way to go if you are gifted with language and you are willing to search every name/term you create to see if there are any potential problems. This is not a method I would prefer if I were naming more than a handful of alien characters/concepts.

Number 2:

  • Pros: Most likely readable, but with some “other” quality. You can use a combination of names chosen by meaning and names chosen at random and make them flow together.
  • Cons: You could still re-create a real name/term, and that could be problematic. It could come off as gimmicky.

The lowdown is that this could be a good method especially if you are writing for a younger audience. This method is less likely to be successful for hard sci-fi, but if you are creative it could help you to consistently name a culture of people.

Number 3:

  • Pros: There is meaning in this method for readers who “get” what you’re doing. The words are most-likely readable, and this follows the method originally used in Greco-Roman history to name planets and stars.
  • Cons: This can be done to the death of your story, especially when readers have already read that term used for another group of aliens. Readers who don’t “get it” may not understand your other references.

The lowdown is that this is a good method when you are letting a whole culture inspire your work, rather than just taking terms here and there from other cultures. In Stargate SG1 they had an alien culture named based on Norse mythology, and it was obvious that the correlation was that these aliens had inspired the mythology; this was interesting for viewers and gave the writers an easy inspiration for naming aliens from that culture. I would challenge you, though, to look outside of European myths and lore to inspire your story, as these have been used excessively (and are still being used excessively).

Number 4:

  • Pros: You can say something without having to say it when you name your characters Mace and Valise, while your readers may assume that these are the “English” translations from the alien language. This can be as easy as going through a dictionary and highlighting potential names to name a whole culture.
  • Cons: This can also be gimmicky. Some nouns are used so much that they are silly sounding, like Maverick. Many nouns are already being used as names, and readers who know people with these names may be taken out of their suspension of disbelief when reminded of the brat down the street.

The lowdown is that this method sounds better and better to me, as long as writers are careful about what nouns they choose.

Every method I’ve mentioned (and those I haven’t) have their place and time. It is up to the writer to make sure that the method they chose is the right one both for the writer and for the story. Just focus on creating names that are readable and that have the right sound-feeling for your characters, and listen to your Beta readers if they have problems with your creations.


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