Naming Woes

One of the questions I come across the most on writing forums is ‘How do you name your characters?’ Naming can be especially challenging when writing fantasy and science-fiction, because often you’re creating names for a society or culture that doesn’t actually exist.

There are a lot of name generators around the web (which can occasionally spit out something suitable), but there are a couple other tricks I like to use when searching for names:

Google Translator

I usually begin with an English word (that being my native language), translate it into other languages, and write down anything that looks promising. Then I just tinker with them a bit, stick ’em together, break them up, swap out vowels, etc.. this is especially useful if you are trying to give your fictional race/culture a particular regional “flavor”.

Once in a while I’ll talk to someone who has made up this or that name, only to find out that there’s someone in Ohio who was born with that particular name in 1983 (or whatever). There have also been a couple of times that I’ve racked my brain for a name, whipped something off the top of my head, only to realize that my memory had provided me with the name of the main villian in so-and-so’s books.

Then there’s the classic one… accidentally naming your character something impolite in another language. Google is a great tool for that. There are some people who are huge sticklers for name originality, and some who aren’t. I’m not, but it’s nice to know what other people might associate the name with.

A good rule of thumb when doing a Google search on your made-up names: If your search returns only a couple thousand results, it’s fairly unique. However, if you’re attached to a name that’s fairly well known, that’s not necessarily a dealbreaker. The main character in my Chaos project is named Gideon, a very recognizable real-world name. What you want to avoid is a name that has a heavy connotation attached to it. The name ‘Sherlock’ is a legitimate real-world name, not one coined by Conan Arthur Doyle–however, if you use it for a character in your book (whether he’s a drug-addled detective or not), the comparison is going to be inescapable.

~ RM

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