A few days ago I did a link to a movie trailer where a Sci-Fi author talks about how to come up with fantasy names. Jessica Day George (whose hair really isn’t big) sent me the clip because it’s hilarious and it’s a question we get asked a lot. The thing is, I got a ton of hits from people wanting to know how to come up with fantasy names. So what the heck, I thought I’d do an actual post on creating fantasy character names.
Creating names can really be as simple or complex as you want to make it. Terry Brooks says on his forum that he gets most of his names from baby name websites. “Most of the names I pick, probably 90%, are picked by going through the various baby names websites out there. I choose a name by associating it with its older meaning. When I find the right one, I know it immediately.”
That’s okay for “Earth” names. But what about names that are from different worlds, or different species?
Going around to Elementary schools, I got asked all the time about how to come up with fantasy names. So I came up with a fun and easy way for kids to create “cool” names. Basically you take a household item or common name and play with the letters until you find something you like. For example:
You get the idea. It’s nothing unique. But it works at a very simple level. Jessica gave me a lot of crap about this at the Provo Library event a few months back—with good reason. The truth is, there really is a lot more than playing with letters when it comes to naming a character. It seems like every author has their own approach.
The first thing is to make sure your names are consistent. Tolkien actually invented his languages first and then used the words in the languages to create the names. For example the Elvish name Eowyn means something like “horse joy.” Bormir means, I think, faithful jewel. You may not want to make up your own language, but you should notice that Tolkien also made sure that you could tell the origin of name just by hearing it. Consider these names from Kingdom of Rohan: Eowen, Eomer, and Theoden. Notice how they sound much softer than the Gondor names: Boromir, Faramir, and Denethor? Although apparently sometimes Tolkien liked a name so much that he changed the language or wrote a new story to explain how that name would fit in.
However, you also have to be careful about having names sound too similar to each other. Avoid names that start with the same letter: Tom, Trey, Terry. Also avoid too many names that have the same number of syllables: Tiffany, Bethany, Anika.
Brandon Sanderson has a great article on his website about how he creates languages and names. “When a reader runs across a name in the book, I want them to be able to instantly determine which country that name came from. However, the names can't be too similar, otherwise they will become a jumbled mess in the reader's mind.”
When I wrote Farworld, I wanted it to be fairly clear which names were Earth names and which were Farworld names. Farworld names are names like Kyja, Therapass, Rhaidnan, Olden. Earth names are Marcus, Chet, and Pete, as well as nicknames like Squint, and Beaver.
Dean Koontz talks about how he uses names to represent certain themes or moods. ““The names of characters are not always symbolic, but they are always important and need to ring true, and they have to resonate in a particular way in each story, supporting mood if nothing else.” For example he named a doctor who wanted to let one of his patients die, Jordan Ferrier–Jordan the river between life and death, and a ferry driver takes the dead to the other side.
Another thing to consider when you create names is the “feel” of the word. Different letters have different meanings depending on the language they are part of. Margaret Magnus, who wrote “A Dictionary of English Sound” talks about this on her website.
“For example, these are the common monosyllables that begin with /r/ and refer to running or walking.
race, raid, range, reach, rip, roam, roar, romp, rove, run, rush.
Notice that these words all concern fast movement or movement over a large area or distance. These themes of high energy, high speed run throughout all the words that contain /r/. But the running and walking words that contain /b/ all begin with /b/ and concern departure:
back(off), bail(out), beat(it), blast(off), blow, board, bolt, book, boot, bounce, bow(out), break, brief, brush(off), buck, bus, butt(out), bye”
Based on this, if you have a character who is fast and powerful, do you want to make up a name like Rugnan or Bleag? In writing Farworld, I wanted the reader to feel like they were entering a world unlike anything they knew—where things could happen that didn’t fit fantasy rules they might be used to. As part of that I created creatures no one had heard of. Here again, I tried to make the sounds of the letters fit the type of creature. Zethar the frost pinnois is snooty. Even his name sounds snooty. The dark wizards are called Thrathkin S’Bae. If you knew a guy’s name was Thrathkin would you want him babysitting your kids? Galespinner sounds light and fast.
You also need to make sure and Google unusual names before you put them into your books to make sure they aren’t already famous from another book in your genre (unless you are giving a “nod” to another author. In the first draft of Water Keep, I came up with what I thought was a unique name. I’d never heard it before and I really liked the spelling. Raoden. But when I searched it I found it was the main character in Elantris. What are the odds? I hadn’t even read the book or met Sanderson at that point. In Land Keep, I called a group of people charged with political crimes Crims. Until I found out it was used by Scott Westerfeld in his Uglies series.
Babynames.com has some great suggestions for writers on creating names. Among them are:
• Make sure you name is age appropriate. Don’t name a second grader Agnes unless there is a specific reason given.
• Make sure fantasy names are pronounceable--especially if they are used a lot. No Xrnidth
• Try combining two common names to make a new one. Jennie and Linda become Jenda.
Or you can just let your characters make up their own names. Like this character from Land Keep.
“Who am I?” the man said, as though asking himself. “When most people ask who you are, they really want to know what you are. Are you famous? Are you powerful? Are you wealthy? Are you someone who can help them get what they want, do you stand in their way, or can you be dismissed out of hand?”
He looked left and right from one snail to the other as though watching an especially exciting tennis match. “Titles are quite useful that way, aren’t they? How about Commander of the Fleet? No, too forceful. Master of All Things Inconsequential and General in Nature? Too stuffy. Merciful and Benevolent Ruler? Too self-serving. High Executioner? No.” He shivered. “That won’t do. How about Her Majesty the Queen? I’ve always favored that one.”
Marcus twirled a finger beside his head, but Kyja gave him a quick elbow in the ribs.
“Actually, I was just wondering what to call you,” she said. “I’m Kyja, and this is Marcus.”
“You want a name? How unusual.” The man scratched a thatch of sparse, gray hair. This time, he actually did knock off his hat. But as it rolled from his head, he caught it with the tip of his left shoe and kicked it into the air, landing the hat right where it had been. “How about Zithspithesbazith? It’s actually quite fun to say and allows you to spit freely on whoever you say it to.”
“I don’t think I could pronounce that,” Kyja said, unable to stifle a giggle.
“No? Why don’t we stick with Z then? It has a certain letter-like quality to it.”
Or you can go to a site that will come up with fantasy names for you.
Fantasy Name Generator lets you pick from things like funny names or scary names
Seventh Sanctum will generate anything from a cat being to a pirate ship
Or The Forge which lets you tailor a name to your exact specification
So there really are as many ways to come up with names as there are to come up with stories. But the important thing is to give some thought to your characters names. It’s one of the first things readers will have to judge them by.