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/websitesBuy 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
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 wordsThis 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. TranslationSimilar 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 scramblingLess 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 creativityYou 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?