Name Theory: How Can I Name Thee…

Everything from your novel’s world to your character’s parents can influence the name you choose for your character. There are so many ways to discover the “perfect” name for a character. I’m going to use this week’s character as an example, and count some of the ways the writer could have chosen to name her.

1. Use the Alternate Universe as an Inspiration

This concept, which I liked so much, could be used to create a whole naming style for the characters from the “other” universe that is distinct from our own. The writer would have to rename all of the characters, but using this would help to define the universes as separate and unique places. To make the universes distinct you could choose out-of-date names for the alternate (choose names that were popular about 20 years before the characters would have been born); you could use names that are extremely rare (which have never been on the top 1000 list); or you could imagine what names would be popular in a world where a different outcome to certain events happened (e.g. a world in which the Nazis won, a world in which Rome never fell, a world in which America is primarily inhabited by Native Americans).

2. Use the Character’s Ancestry as Inspiration

This character was said to be “probably of English or Irish descent.” The writer could have (as I often do) looked for names with English or Irish origins, assuming that the character may have been named for a relative or that the parents (especially if they were raised in that country) want to honor their culture or may just prefer names from their culture.

3. Use the Parents Personalities

We all know (or we all should know) that characters are not props to move the plot along: Characters are people living lives who happen to live out an interesting plot. We also know how we want our characters to act, and should be able to imagine what kind of parents and life experiences would shape the characters into the people they are. Therefore, if we know what kind of parents they have, we can have those parents “name” the character by thinking of what kind of name the controlling mother would give or the mama’s boy father would give. Since people are named by parents with a variety of preferences (I want to honor my family, I want my child to be unique, I want to choose a smart sounding name, etc.), a writer can use the type of parents their character would have to inspire the name those parents would have chosen.

 

These are just a few of the ways this writer could have named this character, and I would love to have seen what name this character would have gotten if these techniques were used (Candria? Imogen? Olive?). The possibilities are unending.

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Character of the Week: All-American Names

Sometimes the greatest thing you can do is to make each of your characters distinct.

The Writer Describes the Character

Male, 170s (in a future when the average life expectancy for human men is around 230)
He was born in the middle of the Mors Epidemic/Virus; hundreds upon thousands were killed. Grew up alone, father died from the Mors when he was ten, mother died in his thirties. (Father was a scientist that was trying to replicate and improve modern technology, mother worked in medical supplies.)
Other characters are named: Cainnech McLeod; Anchel Indari; Bailshar Parandeh; Caden E. Chastain; Whitney Ashmore (Criminal investigator).
He works in large technologies like ships/cars/satellites.
Sci-Fi Thriller

I actually need this character to have a full name!

My first step when naming characters for other writers is to look up the origin and meaning of the names that writer has already chosen for characters. In this way I discover the writer’s naming style. This writer gave each character a very ethnically distinct first/last name combo.

My Reply to the Writer

You didn’t say what ethnicity/country the character was from, and I see that all of the other characters have strong identities, so I chose a very all-American sounding name.

  • Willie Hughes
  • Mike Hughes
  • Ronnie Hughes
  • Alan Hughes
  • Jimmy Hughes

Since this writer didn’t reply I don’t know if any of these names were used. I sort of assume that the writer wanted a name that was more culturally distinct (something Asian or African, perhaps).

I think this is an interesting naming convention for a futuristic society. From what I imagine, each character interacts with a diverse population but they give their children names that are tied to their historical past. This helps to keep each character distinct in the minds of readers.

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.

Character of the Week: Alien Names

This one may have been a failure on my part.

The Writer Describes the Character(s)

I need names for my 2 main characters.

1) Female Heroine—27 year old laid-off copywriter/freelance writer in NYC. Creative, well-liked, and a bit scatterbrained. Was raised in a small, all-American town in the Midwest thinking that her father died when she was young, but then she found out in college that he had abandoned them. Very thoughtful, resourceful, kind, and well read.

2) Male Alien—Navigator/patroller for extra-planetary activity for yet named planet. He is practical, introverted, hard-working, and focused. He is strong for his size, loyal, well-travelled, and can morph into other shapes in order to pose as other creatures. He is also stubborn, secretive, and neglects himself for work at times. He was raised during warring on his planet for resources and grew up learning defensive arts and fighting techniques. Now he uses his skills to maintain peace in the planetary alliance. None of his relationships with females have ever panned out.

I am a bit nervous about the naming of the alien as it will affect the style of names I choose to name any alien from that planet imo.

For the human I used names that were popular in a Midwestern state when this character would have been born. I think the choices were interesting, but they may not have been this writer’s taste (since I don’t know any names this writer has chosen for characters, it’s impossible to gage taste).

For the alien I was long stumped. I believe I named other characters whose requests came in later just to postpone making a decision. The writer here is correct: The name for the alien will create a naming style to be used for all aliens on his planet or in his culture. It was hard for me to create names for this character (which I already know I’m not good at), in part because every name I made up I then searched for on Yahoo! and discovered that it already existed!

My Reply to the Writer

I’m surprised by the names I’ve chosen. To me they sound “not New York”, and “not girly”. I guess I saw her as a former Daddy’s girl, maybe even named after him.

  • Casey
  • Shawna
  • Renee
  • Sheena
  • Amanda

Alien names are difficult. These are, of course, a suggestion. I’ve begun a starting double consonant naming convention, with masculine consonant endings. I’ve avoided the “cool” letters of K V X and Z, to avoid sounding like other alien or villain names.

  • Hhrot
  • Ccotlo
  • Ggadr
  • Nnrito
  • Ppohtel

The writer never replied to me, so I’m pretty sure I missed the mark on this naming. It isn’t entirely surprising, given I didn’t know what type of names the writer preferred. The major issue with this naming is the difficulty of naming an alien species, especially when you don’t know much about that species and their culture. I did my best by coming up with a convention here, but while that convention would “work” for an alien species it probably didn’t fit what this writer had in mind. (I should also add that if I knew this writer was going to have these characters in a relationship, which isn’t clear in the description, then I would have strived to give the alien a sexier name.)

I’m going to ponder alien names some more and riff on that this Wednesday.

Name Theory: Mythology, Terminology, and the Rise of the Sidhe Peoples

I have often capitulated to the fact that in the Fantasy genre in particular, readers will expect (and perhaps even desire) names with meaning; however, as I stated on Monday, I think this may be leading to a plethora of like-named characters.

I’ve pointed this out with my posts on werewolf naming and the names Luna and Remus in particular, but I want to spread the warning.

Fantasy writers like to read history, mythology, fairy tales, and folklore, and they often infuse these into their stories. This can be good and interesting and add a certain depth to the writing. The problem is, writers are all studying the same root material.

So a folklore story is read and enjoyed, and the writer decides to let it inspire their next work. To make the inspiration clear, or to add meaning, the writer uses names and terms from the folklore and infuses them into their work.

This is all great. This is interesting. This is like when writers in other genres use the Bible or Shakespeare for inspiration.

However, names from the Bible and Shakespeare are often more widely used, and less specific to character. So, although there can be problems with too many writers using certain names (for Heaven’s sake, do not use Adam or Eve or any derivation for the first of any type of person in writing ever again!), usually the names are not too overused in writing.

Fantasy writers are having this problem more and more often, though. While their inspiration can run from any folklore or fairy tale, they generally tend to follow “taste” and take inspiration from a relatively few sources.

This is why in the last few months I’ve read two stories that referred to Sidhe peoples. This is a term that I never heard before, in part because I have not read Irish mythology, but as Irish mythology has become “a thing” I expect to see this name more and more.

Granted, these stories use the term for different sorts of characters. And, granted, one of the stories only used the term and did not seem to use other related details. Still, just the very use of this very unusual term (which I had in the first instance assumed was “invented”) was enough to distract me while I am reading the second story (which is heavily influenced by Irish mythology).

I don’t know if I can get to the point in reading this story that the term, Sidhe, will not confound me in some way (even in just a minor twinge). I strongly associate it with the first book in which I read the term and I “see” those characters when I read it. This is not fair to the second book, but it is the truth.

It is a truth I hope you will learn from. I think using mythology is wonderful for inspiration, and I think it can afford opportunities for the writer to infuse the story with Easter eggs for those readers “in the know.” Still, I think writers need to be judicious in their use of names and terms from popular mythologies—for the sake of the readers and for the sake of the writing.

Review: The Last Year Book Series by Trisha Leigh

I downloaded Whispers in Autumn by Trisha Leigh several months ago when it was free on Amazon. I began to read it almost immediately, which is saying something. It is exactly the kind of book I normally enjoy: Young Adult, first person, female narrator, lite Science-Fiction, with Romance.

I was predisposed to like this novel (and the series), but there have been other books that should have fit the bill but didn’t. Whispers in Autumn surpassed my meager expectations, and the series (The Last Year) has become one of my favorites.

Some of the things I loved about this book, and the whole series:

  • Those covers! (It had to be said.)
  • Each novel was complete, while leading directly into the next in the series.
  • The consequences of the characters’ choices increased as the story continued.
  • The characters had to deal with realistic losses.
  • The ending was happy, but tempered by the characters’ reality.
  • While there was a love triangle, it wasn’t the most important thing in any of the characters’ lives.
  • There is a gay character who struggles to understand his feelings in a world where differences and emotions have been severely limited. His being gay is not that big of a deal to our heroine (his friend).
  • The series was serious without being dark, so I can see myself re-reading it in its entirety.
  • I liked the names.

I bet you were waiting for that last part. Weren’t you?

I did like the names in this series. There was a nice balance between familiar but unusual, common, and rare names. I’ll touch on some of the categories of names.

  • The four dissidents were given names from their human parents’ cultures (if you read it, you’ll understand). Althea, our heroine, is an American-born girl with an unusual name which is not “out there”. Lucas, the boy she meets in the first book, had a French mother who gave him a popular name (which is especially popular as a character name). Pax, the boy she meets in the second book, had a mother from Brazil who gave him a rare name which probably came from her faith. Deshi, a boy with a Chinese mother, rounds out the quadrille with an interesting name for a conflicted character.
  • Their human friends have mostly familiar names, some common and some not so common. Leah, Brittany, and company have names that do a good job of making the world feel familiar and real.
  • The Others, the aliens who are the villains of the story, have an interesting naming convention. Those who are named seem to have names that are grown from common nicknames with a –j ending. So we have Zakej, Natej, and Kendaja. I love the simple way the author gave the aliens names that kept them culturally similar, while not being difficult for readers to pronounce or connect with.

I really loved The Last Year series, and I hope that if you like this type of story that you will give this series a chance. When I started reading self-published novels I found on Amazon I wasn’t sure if they could compare to the level of quality of published novels. They can. This series did.

I think that part of the reason why I enjoyed this series so much is that Trisha Leigh was a professional. She hired a development editor and a copy editor, and she hired a book cover artist. I would consider hiring all of them. As a writer, especially as a “poor” writer, I do not say this lightly. I have read other self-published novels that were “professionally” edited which did not compare to this series on any level.

Trisha Leigh hired good people, and she obviously took their advice. I look forward to reading her up-coming series and following her career.

Name Theory: World Building, Societies, and Names

There are genres in which you may do the character naming early in your process, and there are other genres where the character naming should come after some substantial world building.

In contemporary fiction, you can generally look for appropriate names anytime. In fact, you may even start with a character name and “discover” the character’s story and plot afterwards.

If you are writing historical fiction about a place and time-period which you have studied, you may also name your characters early in the outlining process.

However, the more world building your novel will require is directly related to how much planning ought to go in before you name your characters.

Let’s take for example the werewolf namings I did a few weeks ago. As you may recall, I pointed out that if you werewolf was bitten s/he would have been named something unrelated to wolves or the moon or what-have-you; if your werewolf is instead a part of a werewolf society, with packs and power designations, then s/he may have been named something more obviously wolfy. I would challenge you to think that example even further, though, and to consider naming your society of werewolves with names related to their familial lines (e.g. the leader’s family would have more powerful and strong-sounding names, while the others may have more traditionally occupational names to signify their “worker” status). Or you could go with the cheesy/cutesy all the Alphas have Al- names (Alexei, Alejandro, Alegra), the Betas have B- names (Beth, Benji, Bartholomew), et cettera.

Fictional werewolves (usually) live in our contemporary world, so these characters could be named once their origin and familial structure is worked out, but before the entire plot is planned; however, characters in a future or alien setting would require more world building before naming.

Take for example this week’s King. The writer of this story ought to have worked out exactly what the society is like, what part technology plays (whether it is “nothing” as stated, or “steampunk” as also stated), and the power structure of the last 50-100 years that may affect the characters mores and what parents in that society would be naming their children. For example, when the King decided to have society revert to a Victorian-like society he could have insisted that everyone take on names from a Victorian Names Registry (like the registries that some countries use for baby naming). There would then be many Johns and Marys, and no Jaxons and Mackenzies, in this post-apocalyptic society.

Names are a reflection of society. In our modern society being unique and independent are important, so we give our children more unusual names. If your novel is set now or in the near future, you can easily assume the characters will have a selection of some of the currently popular names mixed with some strikingly-distinctive names. If, however, your novel society is not our own, then you need to discover what is important to the parents of that society, and how they would name their babies.