Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Creating Fantasy Names

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.

Initial Position:
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:

All Positions:
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.


J.N. Future Author said...

man! So full of useful information! Like the whole 'r' thing, I never thought of that! its pretty neat.

For myself, the characters really pick their own names. I think of their personality, who they are, and who they will becomes. Then I go through many many names, trying to get ideas until one just seems to stick.

My favorite name ever that I have used is Echo. His personality is very light-hearted, and he tends to be a little more on the silly side. but he loves to fly, thats why his last name is Kendlespire. Spire, tower, tall, sky, flight.

Echo Kendlespire
Zithspithesbazith. that made me laugh when I read that again!

Steven Savage said...

Thanks for mentioning www.seventhsanctum.com! I've been working on it for years and am glad it was useful!

J Scott Savage said...


Love Echo Kendlespire. Very, very, cool name. It's exactly what you described light-hearted and just a tiny bit silly. But not so silly that you can't take him seriously.


You're welcome. I love that site and have played with it a lot. Not a bad last name either! :)

Zirsta said...

Awesome! I actually use that technique, where you change a letter or two at a time from a normal object. And once I did Google a name I came up with and found out it was a cosmetics company. :p
I love the "Z" argument. Haha, Z is truly a wonderful letter. ;)

T said...

haha - I used to avoid reading SciFi at ALL because of the weird names. I still have a "rule" that if I can't pronounce the names I see on the cover that I don't bother reading the book... really :)

(hmmm, I actually think I mentioned that rule when I reviewed your book...)

Julie said...

Quick Question.

I am a future author, and I am wondering about fantasy names still. Is it ok for a character to have a perfectly normal name, even though he is in a world where some of the characters have some interesting names?

For Example:
Richie (said character with normal name)
Glow (nickname, real name is Dawn)
Sunray & Moonray
Wishray (those three are siblings)

and those are the only ones off the top of my head.

are those ok names for characters, or are they to normal. most of the names stick with them, and that was just showing how the characters. none of these guys are human, they are all fairies, so I don't know.

I doubt if you are going to read this but whatever.

any advice about the names? (Man, that one was long!)

W S George said...


I just discovered this post last night. as a fantasy writer, I've always been curious as to how others get their names.

Personally, for me to have very authentic sounding names (especially in longer works, where it matters) I usually stick to a language that describes the "culture" from where the name should come.

Then I decide on what the name should mean. I look for the required phrase in the language, then derive my name from it.

Like this: I need someone who comes from an English Background, sort of medieval, and he's supposed to be a leader of people, a clan...

Old English for "Leader" is Ealdor. Awesome. Then I toy with it: Haldo? Aldor? Baldo? Baldor? Aldom? Eldor?... till I find one that works and is not to obvious.

And it's a great idea to keep an etymology list for consistency and better ideas.

Kellen Welch said...

Personally, it always annoys me when I pick out a fantasy book and the names are completely ordinary. It's rather amateurish (to me, anyway), and it's a bit like robbing the reader - fantasy names can be so rich, and it's disappointing when they're not. Remember that you're transporting your readers to ANOTHER world, not this one, and since names are a good indicator of your world's culture, they should be unique. (Of course, if your world has characters who came from Earth - perhaps through a portal - this would be more acceptable.) You also want to remember that just because a word isn't an Earth name doesn't mean you should use it. For this reason, I would advise against Pyro, but depending on the uniqueness of the other names you choose to use in your world, I as a reader might be willing to let this slide. On a side note, does Pyro have fire powers? I hope not, because that's a little (okay, a LOT) too obvious and much too simple. If you read Wings of Fire by Tui Sutherland (which I recommend doing right away), you'll notice that (for example) SeaWings (sea dragons) all have sea-themed names, such as Ripple, Tsunami, and Whirlpool. This annoys me because there is very little creativity in this, although I suppose it's because the sea is important to that culture.

Since they're all fairies (and since I'm assuming they're typical fairies - into nature and stuff), I think you could get away with using a few more of the common nature names than most. I like "Firia" and "Wishray." I'd be careful with giving siblings, relatives in general, or close friends similar names. This indicates shallowness of character development to me - if the names are alike, the characters are likely much too alike, the sort of grinning triplets who do, think, and speak everything in unison. (Note: Before you tell me Tolkien gave many similar names to his related characters, he's Tolkien, and he actually developed his characters.) "Richie" is dubious (does the fairies' culture have anything that would give them a name corresponding to riches? Again, I'm assuming these are stereotypical fairies). "Iycee" sounds/looks a little silly, which may work for the character - it's hard to know without context. Where do the names "Salim" and "Nadia" come from? (It's worth pointing out that Nadia's Theme is a well-known theme from the soap opera General Hospital, I believe, but if you write for a young enough age group, they might not notice. I certainly don't think of it right off when I hear that name.) If you decide you need to change your characters' names but the name XXXXXXX is so engrained in your mind you can't get it out, pop over to thinkbabynames.com and look up your name - the site gives you "invented variants" on each name with one push of a button. (Pull up the page for that single name - it'll show the meaning, popularity, and variations for your chosen name - and hit the "More" button after "Kreatif forms.") You can get some pretty good "other-worldly" names out of it.

Of course, your decisions are your own. I am not a bestselling fantasy author (not yet, anyway *wink*), so I can't speak for what works from a published author's point of view. However, I read a lot, and I read a lot of fantasy. Hope this helps! Good luck!

Cute Nicknames said...

Magnificent! I really utilize that system, where you change a letter or two at any given moment from a typical protest. What's more, once I googled a name I thought of and discovered it was a beautifiers organization.
matching nicknames

hjaja bjka said...

I'm working on my fic.
These are few names that i make:
These people are tribe people:Kia,Jen,and the head of the tribe Navaleena An. I have a reason why the head tribe has a long name while everyone has a short name.

Here's an elf name: Aerevin Erendriel called Vin.

Here's the villain name(not in one story with those above btw):Corinthia and Erriana(Haven't think about last name)

Different story again here's some names:
Lionella Gladyn(A brave young adventurous girl)
Deanore Erillon(A merman)
Jeslynn(A mermaid)
Maybe Deanore is too common for a merman? What do u think?

Sheza Rae said...

Thanks, This helps allot. I have been sitting on a book for some time now, and have changed the main character name five times. I had no problem with the secondary character but, just can't find a name that sounds right and flows. Most names I have tried sound cheesy to me; for instance, I tried Forrest because both worlds in my story are heavily forested and the trees live in a more human state rather than tree... I have been procrastinating over this one thing now for years. Wish me luck.