The Art of Fantasy Names

March 1, 2009 in Best Of, Fantasy, On Writing by pacejmiller

fantasy-creature

What would you name this creature?

I haven’t done any posts on fantasy writing tips for a while – but I have a few lined up, beginning with how to name things in your fantasy world.

I’m the first to admit that I absolutely suck at coming up with original and intriguing names.  I don’t just mean names for characters, but also names of locations (eg towns, kingdoms, forests, mountains, rivers etc), objects (ordinary, mystical or otherwise), flora and fauna, magical spells, religions – the list goes on and on.  When you are creating a fantasy world from scratch, everything needs to have a name.

However, coming up with the right name is harder than it appears (at least for me, anyway).  When you create an original character, you have to give them a name.  I’ve done so with all the characters for my fantasy novel, but I’m not happy with a lot of them.  Many of the names were made up years ago for one reason or other, and have been forgotten, remembered, changed and modified dozens of times.  I’ve decided to just stick with the temporary names until I complete the first draft, or else I’d never finish.

Here are some thoughts on the topic.

Picking a name that sticks and matches

It’s important to pick a name that readers will remember.  This is probably moreso in the fantasy world than in a story that reflects real life.  It doesn’t have to be completely unique, but it needs to be a name that matches the thing you are naming.  For a character, a name can give away clues about a wide variety of things, such as their personality, physical attributes, age and place of birth, ethnicity, social background etc.  For a location, it can reveal the type of place your characters live in or are going to – at the end of the day, it’s all about the connotations that come with the name, the feeling the name evokes in the reader.

For instance, you wouldn’t call a beautiful girl “Smaug” or a mighty male warrior “Jenny” (I can’t even come up with decent examples).

Memorable novels tend to have memorable names.  The easiest to bring up are JK Rowling and JRR Tolkien, because just about everyone knows their works and their characters.  When you say the name “Hogwarts”, everyone knows you are talking about Rowling’s books.  Similarly, when you refer to names like “Gandalf”, “Gollum” or “The Shire”, the image of Tolkien’s Middle Earth springs up in your mind.

The thing is, names don’t always have to be unique.  They just need to match whatever you are naming.  Look at Rowling’s use of simple names, such as “Harry Potter” or “Ron Weasley”, compared to more unique names like “Albus Dumbledore” and “Severus Snape”.  Both types of names are memorable, but can connote different things.  Readers may be able to relate more to common names like Harry and Ron.  It might also indicate the differences in age and culture (the former more “muggle” and the latter more magical).  Of course, a lot of how memorable a name is has to do with the characters themselves, but it doesn’t hurt having a good name that matches.  Just imagine switching the names of those characters around and you’ll realise that it doesn’t work.

Another thing to be wary of is using a name so closely linked to character, place or object that would make the use seem too blatant, even if it does match.  For example, the “Muscled Warrior” for a muscly warrior, or say the “Tall Mountain” for a tall mountain (two more bad examples).  There are less obvious ones too, like names that you see too often, such as “Fox” (for sleek people with red hair) or “Wolf” (for savage loners).  “Hawk” and “Raven” are also common ones.  Not to say you shouldn’t use them, but just be aware of difficulties such names may cause.

Pick a name that sounds right and you can pronounce

I always read out the name that I created out loud to see if it sounds right.  If it doesn’t then I scrap the name.  The name doesn’t necessarily have to be aurally pleasant.  It just needs to sound right.

Take Tolkien and Rowling again.  Names like “Saruman” and “Voldemort” just roll off the tongue.  There are exceptions (especially for really well made characters), but again, it doesn’t harm your story to have a good sounding name.  I always thought “Tyler Durden” (Fight Club) was a cool name.

Also, it’s critical that you pick names you can actually pronounce. Whenever I see a name littered with apostrophes or contain more than five syllables I started to get confused.  Not to say you can’t use them, but make sure there’s a good reason for doing it.  Never make a name too complicated just because you can. If you can’t even pronounce the name properly (or you leave too much room for individual interpretation of the pronounciation), it will make it difficult for the name to stick.

Pick a name that is consistent

When creating a world, it’s important to remain consistent.  The same should go for names you use in that world.  If every character in your Kingdom has ordinary names like “James”, “Michael” and “Jane”, it would be weird if you suddenly tossed in a “Makunouchi” or “Sawamura”.  If you do, there needs to be a good reason, like they were from another place where everyone has Japanese-sounding names.  If they are from the same place, they should have the same broad type of name with linguistic similarities.  Again, not to say there are not exceptions.  One technique I like to use is to put myself in the shoes of someone living in that particular place and ask myself if I would give my child that name.

The same rule goes for locations and objects.  The best thing is to use your common sense and logic.  If the name doesn’t match or sound right, chances are it doesn’t belong.

Also, try and remain consistent with the real world wherever possible.  So if a creature looks and acts like a horse, then call it a horse.  Don’t try to be too cute.  There is no purpose for calling it something else.

Creating semi-original names

Coming up with completely original names can cause massive losses of brain cells.  One technique that appears to be commonly employed, especially for fantasy authors, is to look up existing names and modify them (check out the links below).  Sometimes, just changing a letter here or a syllable there can make a name sound unique, and yet be able to relate to readers.  A favourite is to use names from biblical texts, 0ld Celtic names or other ancient dialects, but using existing names in today’s world can work just as well.

Google it

One of the most annoying things is to think you have come up with the coolest, most original name all by yourself, and then find out that it’s not original at all.  Therefore, whenever I think I have come up with a good name, I’d Google to check if the name already exists and where it has been used.  Often I would find that my cool creation is the name of some company in a foreign country.  It won’t stop me from using the name, but if it turns out to be something that is used more commonly than I would like, then I would consider changing the name.

Name Generators

There are shortcuts to coming up with names.  One of them is to modify existing names as discussed above.  A more extreme way is to use Name Generators.  Why use your brain when you can use a computer program?

There is a plethora of such generators around on the web that come up with different names for you.  I too am guilty of using a couple of these.  After all, there is a Name Generator built into the writing program I am using, NewNovelist 2 (which I did a comprehensive review of).  But instead of using the generated names outright, I tend to mix and match the combinations a bit and also change a few letters or syllables here and there so I don’t feel as bad for being unoriginal.

Here are some good online Name Generators (in no particular order).  I recommend checking out at least a few if you are stuck for names.  Each has a slightly different system to generating the name.

  • Fantasy Name Generator by Samuel Stoddard – a very advanced generator which gives you options of serious names, fun names and specialised names.
  • Behind the Name’s Random Name Generator - awesome website that can generate names from dozens of languages, including historical and biblical ones, as well as specialised names such as Witch and even Transformer!
  • The Everchanging Book of Names - a program you have to download (for free) and is extremely useful (I plan to use this to come up with better names myself), and can name not only characters but also things such as fabrics and horses.
  • Historical Name Generator: 16th Century Irish and Scottish Gaelic Names - for those that like old-sounding Gaelic names.
  • Chris Pound’s Language Machines - another fantastic name generator for not only characters but creatures and spells, and are specifically categorised.
  • Cult of Squid’s Random Name Generator - pick a template (cultural, geographical, and others) then use it to generate names of peole, places and ideas – very useful, especially if you want a good name for a geographical location that sounds cool.
  • Yafnag (Yet Another Fantasy Name Generator) – self-explanatory.  The good thing with this one is you can generate lots of names at once to pick from and you can pick the desired lengths of names.
  • Random Name Generator - this uses data from the US census to generate random names, and you can even pick the level of obscurity!  Good for those that want to come up with names that reflect the real world (though sometimes it makes you wonder…).
  • Seventh Sanctum - not just fantasy names, but a whole load of different types of generators – eg martial arts moves, weapons, swords, magic.  Really worth a visit.  I will be when fixing up my first draft.
  • The Elvish Name Generator - for those that like Elvish names.  Also has a separate Hobbit Name Generator.  Enter real names and it generates your Elvish or Hobbit name.
  • Fairy Name Generator - similar to the above one for Elvish and Hobbit names.
  • The Pagan Name Generator - for lovers of Pagan names.

Resources and further reading

If you would like to read more about creating names from someone who actually knows what they are talking about, a good starting point is the article “What’s in a Name” by Moira Allen.  There is also an interesting article in the Washington Post by author Elinor Lipman entitled “The Writing Life” which discusses the importance of picking the right name.

Here are some other resources you may find helpful:

  • Behind the Name - the eptymology and history of first names – a website with loads of information about the source and meanings of names from dozens of cultures and in mythology.  For people who want to get a little more in-depth knowledge about the names they are choosing.
  • Baby Names - more of a general website but can be beneficial in coming up with more ordinary names and finding out which baby names are and have been popular.  The Baby Name Network is a similar site with similar features.
  • Celtic Name Meanings - thousands of Celtic names and what they mean.
  • Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names Online - a tool which helps you find geographic names around the world.
  • Medieval Names Archive - a website with tons of information about medieval names that will take a while to navigate, but could be worth it if your fantasy world is medieval in nature.