What’s In A Name?

Call me Ishmael. (Don’t actually. That was just for dramatic effect.)

Names are such important things. We take our own very seriously, and I’ve yet to meet a writer who takes their character names less seriously than that. Nonetheless, a character name is an altogether different thing. Most of us, like and use the name we were given. The most choice we had in the matter was whether to use a nickname. For example, I was Chris for many years until I realized that there are way too many Chris…s (Chrisii? Chrises?).

Character names, on the other hand, we have to choose. (Word of advice: Never leave a character name up to chance.) The issue, then, is how to make that choice. Many writers will tell you that they select names of significance either to the story or to them personally. Others go for referential names that allude to parallel events, secret origins, myths, legends, or jokes.

Regardless of the option you choose, what matters most—at least in my mind—is ensuring that the character name makes sense for the universe in which it will be used. To paraphrase the fine folks of How Did This Get Made?, the name must fit the setting. Tyrion, Tywin, Cersei, and…Kevan? Feels a little odd. Having a character born and raised in ancient China named Nigel, would also be frowned upon. If Gandalf’s true name happened to be Bob, we would call foul. It’s not that Kevan, Hank, and Bob are bad names in general. They simply do not fit the universe in which we’re using them.

One of the best parts of writing is the absolute control we wield over our worlds. The power is ours to create and destroy, dub and redub. I call that out because you CAN name your book’s Gandalf “Bob,” if you want. Just have a reason for it. In universe, not merely in your head. If the pronunciation is more like “boba” and follows the etymology of a forgotten native tongue of the fae, awesome. Just make sure the reader knows that.

It’s far too easy to get wrapped up in being clever and forget that you’re actually not explaining anything to anyone.

A final note on fantasy/science fiction character naming. In my opinion, these are the most fun names to conceive as they can, by all rights, be insane, quirky, or clever without fault. That said, beware of your name quirk. I’ve found that many writers have certain types of names or name sounds that they really enjoy, thus they use them often. I know I have a name quirk like this (and no, I won’t tell you what it is—though you’re welcome to guess). Because fantasy and sci-fi allow us to move beyond “normal” names with impunity, it can be very easy to feed your name quirk.

I had an early novel concept whose character names were all oddly similar until I realized I was doing this. Pro tip: don’t make everyone’s names include the same vowel sound.

What do you do when you’re coming up with character names? What other tips or tricks would you like to share? What name quirks do you know you have bubbling deep inside? Let me know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!

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