There are a lot of things that go into making a good fantasy story and one of the very first things our readers encounter is the names of the characters. We struggle to find the perfect combination of syllabus and letters to make a name that will stick with the readers and be forever attached to your work alone. But it’s really hard to do, and there are a lot of pitfalls.
Most of us have read novels with really cool character names…that we couldn’t pronounce. We stumble over them the first several times, but after that we stop trying, with one of two end results. We either slur the name into something we can remember, or we blank it out every time it’s on the page and think, “that character.” Neither of which is a good thing because we’re then too focused on trying to get through the character’s name to enjoy the story.
So while creating good fantasy names isn’t easy, there are some tried and true methods to the madness. Some use a phone book, especially for last names. I’ve found this to be a good tool for more modern day stories, but not necessarily for fantasy. My personal favorite is a baby names book. I’ve got two that I refer back to time and again, and when I can’t find the right name, I can usually find the right pieces of multiple names to mesh together. Most of the baby name books have alternate spellings as well, which in and of itself is a good way to go. I once wrote a character named Valerye—it’s a real name, but a different spelling than most people are used to seeing, and unusual enough to work without having to be spliced with something else.
Here are a few tricks I’ve learned over the years when it comes to naming your characters.
- Know thy character
While this is obvious, it’s probably the most important part. Most characters will really come to life when you find their true name. My lead male character from Zoe has been through several names—Tylander, Xylander, Leander. But none of them really fit for the kind of man he was shaping up to be. And then one day, I found his real name, and the pieces of his life are falling into place around it.
- Name splice
I like taking two pre-existing names and meshing them together. Changing a letter or two can also help blend them. If you choose names that flow into one another though, you shouldn’t have to change much. Take this one, for instance: Nell and Anna becomes Nellana (Nell-aena)
Generally you don’t want to give characters in the same story names that look or sound alike. Bob and Bill bouncing back and forth on the page will tire your readers out quickly. But there are exceptions to the rule. In my own novel for example, Zoe’s twin brother is Xenes. Their names both start with the Z-sound, but they’re twins. This is one of those times when you have to understand the rule before you can break it.
- Name recognition
Bambi was a quiet child with haunted eyes—eyes that no child should ever have to possess. To the passerby, she was a sad mark of—What? No, this isn’t about the deer!
- Time frame
When writing stories that are based in our world, or even have real world ties, it’s important to match your character year of birth with naming trends. Names come and go in popularity quickly, and while you don’t want to pick a name from the Top 10 of the Year list, you want to keep the time period in mind. The same can be said for your fantasy world. Your character’s mother’s name might have been all the rage when she was an infant, but now is synonymous with something negative, and thus, children are not given that name anymore.
- Do try generators
When I’m at a loss for creating names, I default to the Internet. Just reading can sometimes give you ideas, but try a name generator is more time efficent. As you’re sifting through the results, remember that you’re not looking for it to present you with the perfect name—you’re looking for that letter pairing that will make your name perfect.
- Always test
The quickest way to determine if a name is too hard to say is to talk about the story. Tell your friends what you’re working on, ask for their feedback, get them to say the names back to you. If they stumble over them or miss entire syllables, then the name isn’t going to work.