Saturday, October 3, 2015

Six (Mostly Odd) Tips for Making Up Names

PREAMBLE: Before I created this blog, I had visions of regularly posting writing tips. I love soaking up more knowledge about the writing craft, and I've learned some things on my own journey that I want to share at some point. And here we are, with a six-month old blog, and there is not one writing advice post to be found. Today that changes!


Have you ever met a character with a name that is perfectly, utterly their own? A name that fits their soul, be it black and twisted, or good and true? A name that adds just the right flavor to the mix of personality traits and quirks and mannerisms? A name that you cannot encounter anywhere else without calling to mind that specific person?

Aslan. Frodo. Bartholomew Thorne. Katniss Everdeen. Wizard Fenworth. Sir Eanrin. Sherlock Holmes. Dustfinger. Eugene Fitzherbert. Halt. Marsuvees Black. Tris Prior. Scout. Clefspeare. Mary Poppins. Huckleberry Finn. Cinderella. Ebenezer Scrooge.

And places: Narnia, Parumvir, Dol Guldur, Araluen, Inkworld, Oz, Panem . . .

None of these people or places would be the same without the name that means them.

Have you ever struggled to conjure that Perfect Name for your own place or character? I have, many times. Specifically in fantasy, when you have the opportunity to make up words, thinking of a good name can be hard, and sometimes the keyboard smash just doesn't work. Calling someone Lsyiutypaosk gets tiresome!

My methods of name-creation are a tad unconventional. I'm not promising they'll produce something as legendary as any of the previously mentioned names, but perhaps you'll find something new to try next time good old Anonymous needs a title.

(Just a clarification: most of these methods work best for fantasy/sci-fi.)

1. Baby name books/websites
Buy a book of baby names or look up baby naming sites online. Many provide name origins and meanings, which can be very helpful. If you know your character has, say, Japanese blood, you can search for Japanese names. I did this with Emi of Blood Rose, my Beauty and the Beast retelling. The best part is that Emi means beauty . . . perfect for the Beauty character, right?

Other examples of mine include:
  • Aileen // light
  • Josiah // fervent fire of God
  • Demetria (nation) // abundant and plentiful
  • Leander // lion man
Even if the origin and meaning don't matter to you, just having long lists of names to read can give you more ideas than you could ever use.

Sarah @ Sarah, Plain & Average has a series of posts called What's in a Name? in which she showcases names along with their pronunciation, origin, and meaning; and she includes a picture to go with it. (Great character inspiration! Go check it out!)

2. Etymology of words
This one is odd. Go to the dictionary (I prefer a physical one). Look up words that have to do with the character you're naming. Read the etymology of the word, and see if any of those strange word-ghosts strike your fancy. Sometimes you'll have more luck flipping through for random words and their etymologies, and using that.

For instance, my world of Alewar needed fantastical names for months of the year. For January, I looked up cold and found this before the definition:
cold \ 'kōld \ adj [ME, fr. OE ceald, cald; akin to OHG kalt cold, L gelu frost, gelare to freeze]
My thought process: So I could use that Old English ceald or cald . . . but nah, I don't like the sound of that. Old High German's kalt? Nope, too guttural. Gelu from Latin? Meh . . . But gelare, that sounds fantasy-ish to me. I could use that. And thus January in Alewar is called Gelare. It doesn't matter if readers never find out the meaning behind it. I know.

Another example: I wanted the dragons in Alewar to have polite forms of address amongst each other. Ma'am and sir are much too human, so I set about creating different words. Rather than distinguish each other by gender, the dragons emphasize one another's breath. (FYI, they breathe either fire, water, or ice.) Here's what I did for the fire dragons:
coal \ 'kōl \ n, often attrib [ME col, fr. OE; akin to OHG & ON kol burning ember, IrGael gual coal]
The one that stuck out to me was kol--not only is it short, but it looks good and it's pronounced (in my mind, anyway) exactly like coal, making it easy for readers to associate it with fire dragons.

3. Translation
Similar to #2, this method takes words that (ideally) mean something about your character, and translates it into other languages until you find something that clicks. Google Translate makes this really easy.

For a race of lizard-like creatures in Alewar, I think I looked up contradict in other languages, and found econtra. (It may have been Spanish. I don't know; it was a long time ago.) Contradict wasn't my first choice of word, but methods like these often find me deviating from my original search. I probably looked up evil, antagonist, and opponent first; didn't find anything I liked; and moved on to synonyms, and synonyms of synonyms. All that matters is that I found a word that worked. The econtra serpents are now a major part of book 1.

More recently I was helping Christine rename one of her characters, a beautiful fae creature who haunts a castle. Naturally, one of the first words I translated was fairy. Because her story had a fairy tale setting, I tried languages like Welsh and Icelandic. The first yielded a mouthful: tylwyth teg. The second resulted in another mouthful: ævintýri. I suggested fiddling with it, making it Aevin or Vintyri. Christine appreciated the suggestions, but wound up finding a softer-sounding name, which fit her character much better. . . . And I took Vyntyri (with a slight spelling change) for myself.

4. Word scrambling
Less complicated and a lot more random than the previous methods is good old word scrambling! Whether you pick a word at random, or select one more deliberately, all you do is play around with the letters. Let's say you're naming an elven princess--you may want to fiddle with soft, melodic words. Or if it's a villain, find harsh, dark words to cut up and put back together.

Examples from my writing: A city called Mevon came from the first part of November spelled backwards. The nation of Klandess is really clandestine with a few alterations. A character named Sir Neves Ember got his first name from seven spelled backwards. Creatures called xenyls are from scrambled letters of lynx, with an added E to make it pronounceable.

Take a few letters from one word and a syllable from another and see what happens! Spell something backwards. Scramble the letters. Sometimes it just doesn't work, but other times it yields exactly what you need.

5. Plain old creativity
You are a writer. You are a creative being. Sometimes when you need a name, you just have to make it up.

Try to keep it pronounceable. Don't be too complicated. Lots of vowels may look like a beautiful Tolkien-elf name, but show it to some friends first and see if they can say it correctly. Likewise, too many consonants can drag the name into gibberish territory. Apostrophes within a name . . . use with moderation, please.

Be wild. Be creative. But in the end, make sure the name works, and make sure we can say it. I include a pronunciation guide in my WIP fantasy series, but my hope is that readers (I'm talking about the nerdy sort like me that actually care to know the right way to say a made-up word!) won't need to refer to it over and over again.

6. Keyboard smash
When all else fails . . . pound the keyboard and see what you can salvage! If nothing else, it gives you an outlet for that authorial frustration.


How do you come up with names for characters, locations, or objects? Do any of these methods appeal to you?


  1. I looooove reading writing tip blogs, so I was so thrilled to see my own Tracey write one. You MUST do more of these, because this was spectacular!

    These ideas are so great! Seriously, I need to remember these because I'm not always the best at naming people. Especially when I was younger. Like in my Colors of a Dragon Scale series I have some nonsense names and now wonder what on earth I was thinking. Some *I* can't even remember how to pronounce. It's ridiculous, I don't know what I was thinking. So yes, come rewrite time people will have to have name changes I fear.

    Looking through baby name book is my favorite. Partially because I have this super weird obsession with names and just really enjoy looking through them... I'm strange. But it's also helpful! That's how I found the name Cadmus, my trusty baby name book.

    I have never thought of looking through a dictionary at the etymology of a word. What a fascinating idea. :O

    I do occasionally like to look at translations of things and mixing them up. Plus it's kind of fun looking up random words in other languages. (Also I feel so specials you mentioned me in this post! ^_^)

    Also, I have to say, just from this post I can see how dedicated you are to worldbuilding. You put so much effort into every little thing in your world and it just puts me in awe! I slack so much in worldbuilding, but you're inspiring me to try harder. And I know all your effort shines through in your books. ^_^

    For me, if I'm naming characters with real names, I'll usually resort to my baby name book. If I'm making up names (which is far more often the case) I pick a letter that I feel will fit the character, then I just start coming up with random things with that letter. Like with one of my characters Eryth, I knew I wanted her name to start with an E for some reason, so then I just kept playing around with things until I found a soft E name that fit her soft personality. Probably not the most conventional way to name people, but it's fun. XD

    1. Why thank you! I hope to think up some more of these.

      Oh goodness, didn't we all come up with nonsense names? XD Pretty much --> "Hey, this jumble of letters looks like an epic fantasy name! Let's do that!"
      I'm sure you'll end up having lots of fun renaming all those old characters! It's part of the coal to diamond process.

      No, you're not strange at all. I love baby name books! (Which could just mean I'm strange too...?) Ah, Cadmus, my baby! Let me hug him again. ^.^

      I honestly have no idea how or when I started doing that. :P But 'tis fun.

      It's fascinating, isn't it? It's so interesting to see which parts of a word sound similar even when translated to other languages. Do you have a favorite language in that regard? (That's cuz you is so specials. ^_^)

      Wow, thank you!! I used to be TERRIBLY slack in that area. So many loopholes and pointless, unexplained elements. But over the past couple years, I've fallen in love with digging into a fictional world to bring it to life. :) And what, are you kidding? Burning Thorns contained beautiful worldbuilding! I'm specifically recalling all the amazing imagery used in the castle, like moving murals and whatnot. Magical.

      Oh, I forgot about picking a letter! I do that too, sometimes with real names as well (to get me focused on a narrower list). And Eryth is a gorgeous name. From what I know of her, it definitely fits.

      Thanks for being your sweet self! <3

  2. I do tend to have difficulties with names, especially with places.
    I used to use the translation method, but my concern was that someone who knew the language would come across the name.
    Lately I've been dropping two or three names in a blender and seeing what comes out.
    That keyboard smash sounds fun, especially when one is in a foul mood. Let me try.

    jukh hygjg fgkx jhfmd kdexl

    Hm so far I've accomplished nothing but anger management. Ah well.
    Thanks for the writing post. I'm looking forward to more.

    1. It can be really hard sometimes, especially when you're trying to infuse the name with a sense of place and history. (Issues which are multiplied by 100000000 when you want a whole country's worth of names to sound consistent!)

      Hmm, that is a possibility. If the word is one that fits the character/place, it wouldn't be the worst thing to have someone figure it out.

      Ooh, combining names is a great idea! I feel like that would work really well for a number of genres. Dystopian and sci-fi come to mind...

      LOL, Mr. Jukh Hygjg Etc. would be a perfect main character, right? XDDD

      Glad you enjoyed it, Blue! ^_^

  3. I have done nearly all of these at some point, I enjoy the process of naming character's it solidify's them in a way. Keyboard smash is my favorite, that's the first sign of desperation.
    Great tips :D

    1. So true. A character is never quite complete in my mind until they have a name that clicks!
      LOL, desperate times call for desperate measures, right? :P
      Thanks, Skye!

  4. I really like the etymology method! I've never thought of that. I normally look up names on a baby names website or let the character just say which one they want to be or play with a base language's words like Icelandic or Celtic for instance for a book of mine.

    1. Thanks! It can be quite helpful (and other times not), but it makes for interesting experiments. Haha, characters do sometimes demand their own name. XD That last method you mentioned is intriguing... I'll have to give that a try!

  5. Why have I not commented on this yet? I swear I thought I had like the day it went up. Oh, well, better late than never, right?
    Character names. One of the biggest struggles for me as a writer is coming up with good, solid names for my characters (also plotting, world building, dialogue, putting my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard and typing out words in a somewhat coherent fashion...).
    I am continually using "filler" names for characters, like BBA (short for Big Bad Antagonist), or Mr. Whatshisface, or THATPLACEWHATDOICALLITAHHH! (Ok, in all honesty, I haven't had to use the last one yet, but you get the picture.)
    All that to say I found this post incredibly helpful. Next time I need a good name, I'll just turn to my handy dandy dictionary and look up word etymologies. Genius!
    Hope you have a happy Thanksgiving! XD

    1. I do that too often myself. :P Maybe it's because half the time, I read a bunch of posts and then go back to comment later on...

      Ah, the struggles of a writer. Yes, names can often be one of them! Which is why I resort to such odd methods like poking my nose into a dictionary and reading the parts no one else cares to. XD

      LOL, those are great filler names! It's like those times when book characters don't know the names of the baddie's thugs, and they get referred to as Crew Cut, Mustache Guy, or Beefy... or something like that, anyways.

      Oh, I'm so glad you found it helpful!! Good luck on your next naming endeavors, and happy Thanksgiving to you too! :D

  6. I love this post!!

    I was nodding all the way through ... "I do that ... yup ... I do that too ... ah yes, and that!"

    I spend so much time on baby naming websites ... anyone looking in my search history would be most confused! And my favourite website is called Lucifer's Onomastikon -- -- which is excellent.

    It's such an amazing moment when that one name comes to you, the name that just fits and is so RIGHT for the character in question! But I especially love names with particular meanings. So, for example, my MC's stepsister is called Aurelle, which at the time I just made up cause it sounded pretty and right for her. But then I was toddling about Lucifer's Ono. (I'm lazy, the word's too long) one day and reading some names and it mentioned the Latin "Aurelius", which means "golden". (Remember, the chemical symbol for gold is Au!) And Aurelle has golden hair, golden skin, and is generally the definition of a "golden girl" ... and my subconscious is a genius!!!

    My other proud moment: so there's this country called Tellarik. When God made the universe, the first people dwelt in the land that's now called Tellarik, in the place that is now its capital city, which is a hotseat for magic. I needed to name this city. I knew that Tellarik was vaguely based on Turkish culture. So I found "cesaret", which is a Turkish word for "heart", and added the Hebrew "El", so that "Cesaretel" is "the heart of God", because that's where He put the first people!! Then I split it into two words, partly so that people'd know how to pronounce it, and partly as a nod to Cair Paravel.

    And all in all I was very pleased!

    It's just like you said: "It doesn't matter if readers never find out the meaning behind it. I know."

    My other favourite website is -- the design is hideous, but the content is amazing!

  7. Thanks so much, Emily! I'm glad you enjoyed it. :D

    So I'm not the only one. Yay!

    Ooh, I just checked out the Lucifer's Ono (heh, that's a tad easier than the full word, isn't it?), and it looks nice and detailed. Thanks for the link!

    Don't you just LOVE it when that happens?? :D That's a fabulous coincidence right there. I've had similar things happen to me too, though what springs instantly to mind is plot-related, not name-related. Aurelle is a beautiful name, by the way. And the Ces Aretal (I'm assuming that's how you split it...?) thing is awesome! It's just too fun to have all those connections and meanings behind the scenes.

    I looked up the 20,000 names one too, and you're right: terrible design, good content! Thanks for adding two more name resources to my list, Emily. ^_^