The Naming of Characters

It’s often asked, “What’s in a name?”

The answer is invariably “more than you think.” Along with giving people definite references for the individuals they describe, names tend to carry images in and of themselves, imply background, and try to fill ten words for every one they include. And that isn’t even getting into the story itself, where a name might be a deliberate message on the part of a parent, a tribute to a role model or older relative, or something similarly meaningful.

The trick, of course, is coming up with them. I’m particularly fond of choosing names by meaning; very few of my characters don’t have something of the sort. It works for me for a lot of reasons. One, it lets me remember what my original image for the character was (Aukai, or “seafarer”, for instance, was a sailor-type with a bit of a Captain Ahab mentality, and Solada “listener” was a confidante to a number of characters). Two, it lets me sneak in foreshadowing—my favorite example here is of the two characters whose names, and the names of whose numerous secondary identities, were each names used for one Hindu god. Three, it helps me find names—pulling names out of nowhere annoys me, but if I can just use something that already exists (for instance, pulling out Chiko “arrow, pledge” for a legendary figure whose promise was the subject of an oft-alluded to epic), it makes my life much easier. Fourth, it can serve as a mnemonic in its own right: I’ve forgotten a lot from my molecular biology class, but after naming two characters Dicer and Drosha, I’m never going to forget those are the names of a pair of dsRNA-cutting enzymes. The best part? All it really takes is a book of baby names.

Then there’s choosing a name by culture, based on what the name-bearer’s language sounds like. While you can—and I often do—combine this with choosing names by meaning, sometimes it’s just too much work. At that point, choosing from a name-by-culture list, such as those on Kate Monk’s Onomastikon, is the easiest—an alphabetically organized name book hinders as much as it helps.

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can go to full extremes and attempt to combine letters and/or syllables in ways that suggest the appropriate language. The advantage is that it requires no outside materials, or at least nothing more than a pencil and paper. On the other hand, you might find yourself with a long list of nearly identical-sounding names (I’ve had GMs who suffered from this), or you might end up with something that looks nice on paper but doesn’t work too well for pronunciation. Both are easy to work around, though; keeping names listed so you don’t cover your own tracks will help avert the first, and reading a name out loud before you commit to it will help with the second.

If you’ve got lots of characters, getting out of a naming rut is highly important. These tips can help keep them fresh.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Naming and Geography | Exchange of Realities
  2. The Traps of Names | Exchange of Realities
  3. The Name: It’s How You Use It | Exchange of Realities

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