Book of the Honored Dead

Conan: A Strong Name for a Strong Character

  • Names are important in your stories
  • Names should have meaning
  • Don’t name your character Zoloft the Dark Lord of Pain

Many cultures throughout history have kept a record of those who fall in battle, sacrificing themselves for the good of the nation.  We tend to erect monuments to them, think about the number of monuments nationwide to fallen veterans of our conflicts.  Why do we do this? Because names are important to us.  We want to remember the names of the fallen, we could remember them some other way, especially today.  We could record their faces, preserve their corpses and put them on display, perhaps build monuments with records of their fingerprints or genetic material.  However names have a special significance to us, they identify the person more completely than anything else we are capable of doing.  So, it is names which I want to speak of today.

In order to do this I am taking a brief break from my series on social commentary in fiction to discuss the use of names, an issue which keeps coming up both with our writing group and those authors which I read.  Names are one of the simplest, and most important, aspects of your writing.  They can make of break your character, your book, even the world you write in.  Yet it can be so difficult to tell what is a good name and what a bad.  What will connect your characters with your audience, what will give your world the appropriate feel without making it too strange for people to enjoy.

Now certainly it is up to you what you name your characters, they are your characters of course.  If you want to name them Galendwarf and Aragoli then go right ahead, however you might want to put a little bit more thought into it than that.  In general names should have meaning.  Avoid naming a character something because it just popped into your head, or because you liked the sound of it, sometimes that will work…more often your characters will wind up with names like Zoloft the Dark Lord of Pain.

One author I read confessed that he takes an extra notebook with him whenever he travels and if he sees or hears a name he likes then he steals it.  Others, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, create entire languages and then draw their names from a rich history of etymology and meaning.  Something you might try is pulling names from other languages, depending on the feel you’re going for in the story.  Something you should always do is read the names aloud to yourself, if they sound like prescription drugs (or illegal drugs), bad movie titles, or something you’d see in a spoof you should probably change it.  If you can’t pronounce it then you should probably also change it (…I get this a lot from the others in the group).

Captain Jack Sparrow Sounds Very Piratey

Now I mentioned earlier that names can shape the feel of your story.  If your main character is named Jim then it’s a pretty safe bet that we’re not dealing with high fantasy, if your main character’s name is Elphinashinelenvid Forcaliotiono then…you should probably go back and read the last paragraph ;).  Seriously though, if most of your names are Germanic, Gaellic, or English sounding then your probably writing in a fantastic but very European setting where nobles live in castles, knights ride the countryside in armor, etc.  On the other hand if your character’s names are something like Yuki Kawakaze or Shin Mon Lee then we can expect more monks and swordsmen and fewer armored knights and pitchfork toting peasants…and more rice.

Take, for example, David Eddings’ character’s, Sparhawk, Belgarath, Polgara, etc.  Lots of b and p sounds, th sounds, very western names.  On the other hand Lian Hearn has names like Takeo, Shigeru, and Otori, very Japanese.  Steven Erikson, for some of his characters, has names like Kalam Mekhar, Baria Metral, Ben Adaephon Delat, which evoke more of a middle-eastern feel.  One very important thing is that your names correspond with one another.  Two people who grew up in the same mountain village are not likely to be named Iris Samuels and Asahino Kamikari, the names are too dissimilar.  Another thing to avoid is names that are too similar, characters from opposite sides of the world should probably not be named Sedrick and Roger unless the world has only one culture.

The Archangel Murry...Might Need to Rethink That One

Lastly I want to discuss a naming trend that can either work very well, or seem completely contrived depending on how you use the names and the reasons behind using them.  Steven Erikson and, before him, Glen Cook had a habit of naming some of their characters by extremely practical, descriptive names such as Stormy, Croaker, Lutes, Pawnbroker, Fiddler, etc.  In Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen these names work very well, in Cook’s The Black Company they work very well with a few exceptions.  This kind of naming is tricky because the name has to sound good, describe the character well, and be reasonable in the context of your story.  For instance Erikson, in one of his books, explains that many Malazan soldiers are given new names during their training which reflect something about their person.  An idea I am considering stealing for some of my own stories because I like it so much.

Ultimately a great story can support questionable names, however poor naming will most certainly detract from the quality of your story.  I can remember a few I’ve read where I went through the whole story/book thinking ‘Really? You named him that?’  Don’t be afraid to use names you like, but do be afraid to use names to which you haven’t given much thought.

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About noothergods

I hate writing these things. Ok, a little bit about me. I split my time between this world and other worlds so I'm only here about 25% to 50% of the time. Other times my body might be here (or you never know it might not) but I am off somewhere else having strange and usually pretty horrible adventures. I consider myself a scholar of Christian Theology and of Religion in general, I love learning about other people's belief systems. I think that Shinto is fascinating and I'm obsessed with the theology of sin...and with monkeys...I don't know why I'm obsessed with monkeys but I blame Gus...if you know him you'll understand that, if you don't then...well...I blame Gus. Anyway, I'm the one of the blog that needs to be censored the most so if there's anything posted that you find offensive it was probably me. I think that my brain doesn't really work the way it's supposed to but that's an issue for a whole other time. I have two degrees, a B.S. in Religion and an M.Div. in leadership. I enjoy a great many things some of which include writing (gee, what a surprise), martial arts, anything media that has a good story to tell, cooking, discussing/reading/occasionally writing about Christian theology, General theology, religious belief systems, philosophy, etc. I also enjoy reading medieval and previous magical texts and studying the history, practice, and beliefs about magic from around the world. I don't practice magic and if you want to know my personal beliefs on the subject you can email me, however the intersection of magic and religion is a very interesting topic.

Posted on November 29, 2010, in Authors, Characters, Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Tobias Mastgrave, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I tend to use real, but relatively uncommon names (Mikaela, for example), or take real names and spell them in weird ways (Ariande…. a derivation of the Greek Ariadne and Alistar… similar to Alistair). This keeps me from having to make up completely new names, but still keeps things interesting. I do throw in the occasional made up name, but my goal is to always make them sound more or less like names that could easily exist in this world.

    I have to say, Kyle, I find it a wee bit hypocritical that you would object to a name like Elphinashinelenvid Forcaliotiono. Remind us all again what Crugg’s full name is? Hmmmmmm?

    That’s one thing you didn’t go over (which is fine, because your post was extensive and thorough as it was) is using long names for snark purposes. Names can serve the purpose of hilarious mockery too. I once created a country where no one had last names. Everyone just had enormously complicated first names that were entirely unique.

  2. Then of course there are the true Entish names of the Tree Herds, which they reveal to none (because it would take too long–several human lifetimes, probably–to say them).

  3. I think that you were a little too harsh on the name of Jim. Don’t forget the there is a planet Bob out there. Like Melissa said names can convey snark or irony. I am more distracted by a strange sounding name, than I am with an epic hero named Jim. But do agree that there needs to be consistency to some extent when it comes to names particularly if they are attached to cultures.

  4. [Scratches back of head] Yeah…Elphinashin actually came from a game I’m running…he’s an elf trapped inside a bards hand…
    You’re right though, long or ridiculous names can certainly serve a purpose and once you understand the ‘rules’ (loose as they may be) you can bend or break them for specific purposes. However, being a roleplayer for a while now, I’ve seen plenty of deeply serious characters with names like Ofnorasian Holgardial or Ha’falatiel Samonisia…you get the point. It makes me sad…and frustrated when I’m trying to remember how to type them.

  5. Супер, Какие нужные слова… супер, блестящая мысль

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